This year, purpose reached its true place as corporate and brand strategy – it’s no longer "if" an organization will embrace purpose, it’s about "how" organizations will identify and activate an authentic purpose.
From the start of this year, when the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) crowned "Brand Purpose" as the word of the year, to the recent Business Roundtable declaration that corporations must balance the needs of all stakeholders and the 2019 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, at which 16 of the 21 Grand Prix winners had purpose as their central idea, purpose is now mainstream.
As a Harvard Business Review study noted: "Purpose-driven companies make more money, have more engaged employees, more loyal customers and are better at innovation and transformational change."
The maturation and segmentation of purpose was also clear on the conference circuit: this fall, more than 21 events in the U.S. focused on social impact, from leadership and social investing to product and service innovation and social activism.
Last week, PRWeek’s PRDecoded: Purpose Principles conference demonstrated the evolution and power of purpose through a smart cadence of more than 25 presentations over one-and-a-half days. The back-to-back case studies, plus the inaugural Purpose Awards, captured critical insights to inform purpose practitioners across industries and roles.
Yet purpose is at a crossroads: continue to thrive or become relegated to the graveyard of promotional stunts.
Fulfilling its highest potential, purpose can advance capitalism to be more inclusive – as nonprofit Just Capital recently stated: "Leadership on corporate purpose doesn’t require a degree in moral philosophy. It’s about paying workers fairly, protecting customers, looking after the environment, giving back to communities, and ensuring strong and ethical leadership."
For example, Stanley Black & Decker won the PRWeek Purpose Award for Brand of the Year by demonstrating distinctive purpose lived deeply throughout the organization. The company defines its purpose as "inspiring makers and innovators to create a more sustainable world."
The activation of the company’s purpose was comprehensive: it set clear goals to deliver top quarterly performance and continuous innovation and elevate significant social impact commitments, including diversity and inclusion initiatives and a bold sustainability target to be carbon negative by 2030.
The leader of the world’s largest B Corp, Danone’s North American CEO Mariano Lozano, discussed his fierce commitment to a new governance structure that directs companies to manage and report on both economic and social returns through their B Corporation status. "The responsibility of a company cannot end at the factory wall," Lozano said.
Speakers also cautioned against "purpose washing," which often results in a one and done action to grab headlines and sparks social chatter for the short term. This approach usually results in minimal to no impact on the organization, and even less on society.
As purpose advances via research, extraordinary innovation and best practice, it’s up to us to be voracious students of information to advance the reach and sustained impact of our work.
Determine your ambition with conviction and courage to boldly break through, as demonstrated by the winners of the first Purpose Awards: from the social robot my firm created for Aflac, My Special Aflac Duck, to Levi Strauss & Co. with its commitments to end gun violence and Gillette and We Believe sparking critical race conversations.
Know that purpose is a journey, that it is hard, yet deeply satisfying work. Its strategic and authentic application through business is crucial for our communities, regions, country and world to address the multitude of challenges before us for our mutual survival.
As the Harvard Business Review stated: "It seems easier to win the game when you care about the game."
Here’s a first pass at outlining some Purpose Principles based on my 30 years’ experience shaping the field of social impact and purpose:
1. Build purpose from business objectives
Have a crisp understanding of the definition of your purpose objectives – internally and externally – and why you are tapping purpose as a guide. "When purpose is a company’s North Star, its strategy becomes very clear," said PayPal VP Megan Matthews. "Spend as much time on the ‘why’ as the ‘what,’" Damon Jones from Procter & Gamble added. "Articulate why a multibillion-dollar corporation is engaged in this. For us, we want conversation. That leads to understanding, which leads to behavior change, which leads to action."
2. Discover a key insight
Discovery is a combination of research and data, extremely active listening, building a cross-functional team and engaging external experts. "Nurture ideas. Believe in the power of ‘Yes. And….’ Give people time to think," said Disney alum Duncan Wardle. Mondelez researched its peer set, internal employee engagement, social media, talent-acquisition stats and more. "Listening is more important than wordsmithing," said CMO Martin Renaud and Russ Dyer, VP and chief of communications and government affairs.
3. Drive purpose from senior leadership
While you should utilize a cross-functional team to drive implementation, purpose must be led by senior leadership to be sustained and impactful. Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., told PRWeek: "My title is CEO, but a big part of my role is actually chief values officer and ensuring this company lives up to our legacy and is not afraid." General Motors' CCO Tony Cervone said: "Craft the structure to have the conversation."
4. Employees are your engine
Employees are your most powerful stakeholder to create and advance authentic purpose. Engage them deeply to understand your organization’s human and cultural truths and where they want to impact society. "Look at what employees are asking for and create something special," said Idalia Hill, communications leader for CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. Nike’s VP of purpose communications, Vanessa Garcia-Brito, stressed: "Nike’s purpose is brought to life by our employees."
5. Embed into culture
The hardest part of bringing a brand or organization’s purpose to life is to consistently, patiently and strategically lace it into culture. To deliver its full potential, purpose must be lived from senior leadership to the factory floor via individual behaviors, policies and actions internally and externally. In the "last five years, we’ve been purpose-driven," said Dominic Carr, Microsoft’s GM of global public affairs. "It really has become ingrained in the DNA, and it’s been a powerful decision-making tool that lets us make choices in difficult situations. Those things come together, and this purpose-driven mission has been a key part of this company's renaissance."
6. Lead with the issue
Purpose communications is not about the company. Authenticity is about the issue, the tension with society and potential solutions to advance social impact. "Don’t measure in impressions; use purpose as a filter to make decisions," said Cervone.
The brave frontier for purpose is its impact on new products, services and systems. "We are living in a world of ‘AND’: performance to our athletes, designed sustainability AND beautiful design," said Garcia-Brito. Her role in purpose communications was created to dial up Nike’s intentionality behind purpose. As one of the few "purpose" titled executives in the world, she provided a great list of her operating style: lead with purpose first, be open and curious, invite most perspectives, no single response, bring purpose to life through all employees, be vulnerable, stay humble, I train for my job, "Grit. Courage. Be optimistic.", and focus only on what is possible.
8. Depth of societal impact
There is a schism between how the advertising and PR industries apply purpose. While brilliant creativity can come from both, true purpose must have societal impact with multiple stakeholders, in addition to driving reputation and brand awareness. This means understanding where you can make a real difference on a societal issue, investing resources and a sustained commitment, setting goals and reporting on progress. Creativity for creativity’s sake leads to "woke washing" as Alan Jope, Unilever’s CEO, declared at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, adver-activism or purpose washing. Our world needs real, long-term engagement on social issues.
9. Stick with the issue
Find where your business competencies and society intersect. Declare your ambition. Know it is a journey for 5-10+ years and stay the course. Do not hopscotch from one issue to the next. Go narrow and deep in an area. Then stay fresh, inspiring and surprising with new activations to move the issue forward. One of the world’s leaders in this is Nike. Its ambition comes from the heart of its purpose: "If you have a body, you’re an athlete."
The adage "that which gets measured gets done" applies to sustained, impactful purpose work. A growing number of independent organizations are measuring companies’ commitment to purpose:
Just Capital, a nonprofit established by Wall Street financier Paul Tudor Jones, is building one of the market’s most unbiased and data-driven platforms for measuring corporate performance across new stakeholder-based dimensions. In October, it will release its 2019 survey, sharing latest polling results to provide a clear roadmap for what business leaders need to do to take concrete action in each area. In November, the organization will release its annual Just 100 list.
The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), an independent council, has worked to standardize corporate reporting of material nonfinancial data in areas such as employment, environmental sustainability and governance. Global Impact Investing Ratings System (GIIRS) rates companies and funds based on their environmental and social impact, in a manner similar to Standard & Poor’s credit-risk ratings.
And there is the option of becoming a B Corp like Danone, a public benefit company certified by the third party B Lab. In short, companies can now structure and measure social performance alongside financial progress.