Making sense of measuring purpose

There’s not just one way to measure purpose work and its efficacy, and experts use several concepts that can be applied across industries.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Gone are the days when a company could simply tack on a purpose activation, call it corporate social responsibility and enjoy the praise. Now consumers expect brands to have a purpose built into the tapestry of their businesses, a purpose that is reflected in all of the work that the brand does, from internal hiring to campaigns.

But how can you measure purpose?

“Purpose defines an organization’s unique role and value in society in a way that allows it to simultaneously grow the business and positively impact the world,” says Alison DaSilva, MD of purpose and impact at Zeno Group. “It serves as a guide and filter for making business decisions and how to support many of the complex issues we are facing today.”

Yet purpose cannot simply be empty words. “Purpose is not only about what you say, but also how you act,” she adds. 

Kathleen Enright, MD at SalterBaxter agrees. 

“We need to shift from the promise of purpose to proof of purpose,” she says. “Brands and businesses have jumped on the purpose bandwagon in the last couple of years and defined their purpose in marketing terms rather than by questioning what they need to be contributing to society. Treating purpose as a marketing exercise is risky business.”

Leela Stake, senior partner and global lead at FleishmanHillard’s FH4Inclusion, adds that “good intentions aren’t enough.” That’s why her agency is looking to demonstrate that the brands it works with are living up to their purpose by measuring campaigns. 

There’s not just one way to measure purpose work and its efficacy, and experts use several concepts that can be applied across industries. 

Jaclyn Murphy, EVP at Edelman Purpose, cites two areas and ways to measure purpose. The first is whether an organization is making a positive impact in society The second is the commercial impact, or is a purpose actually moving the needle from a business perspective? Generally speaking, having a purpose is about driving change, so a company needs to have a goal in mind to measure its success or impact.

Samantha Lasky, SVP of issue advocacy at BerlinRosen, argues that “initiatives should be integrated and clearly aligned with the work the company does and the communities in which its stakeholders, including employees and customers, live and work.” Because of this, efforts can and should directly correspond with goals and metrics that a company already has.

These can be supplemented with reputation trackers like Re-Trak and employee and customer satisfaction indexes such as Net Promoter Scores. “Measuring media sentiment on related announcements is also a valuable tool to overlay onto a business’ overarching metrics and goals,” Lasky adds.

Murphy echoes Lasky’s point, arguing for purpose to be integrated as a measurement within a brand’s existing set of business tools. “The premise of purpose is that it should be core to your DNA,” she says. 

Staffers at Edelman eschew add-on measures to understand purpose, and instead work with a given client and relevant research teams to ensure that it’s embedded within the company’s broader work. Reputation trackers can in turn bolster understanding.

At Fleishman, staffers start by seeking to understand the stakeholders’ expectations by doing a materiality analysis. From there, Stake advocates using frameworks like the Global Reporting Initiative, Dow Jone Sustainability Index and mapping clients’ work against the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We [also] use the Authenticity Gap as one tool to measure the gap between audiences’ expectations and actual experiences with a company. Several of the nine drivers, including doing right, community impact, care of employees and care of the environment, are good indicators of purpose,” Stake says. She adds that employee surveys are another easy way to gauge purpose.

Zeno recently launched its own proprietary tool for understanding purpose, called the strength of purpose diagnostic tool. DaSilva explains that “it has multiple components that blend primary research and a proprietary performance evaluation. Ultimately, it will show a company where it is leading and lagging and deliver actionable next steps to optimize it for greater business, brand and societal return.”

Trust and purpose can in many ways reinforce one another, which is why Edelman includes purpose as one of four key dimensions measured in the agency’s net trust score. Using this metric encourages clients to think about measuring purpose within the context of other drivers of business performance. This, in turn, enables the firm to combine commercial efforts, such as business and brand health, with the social efforts historically attributed to CSR, “bringing different functions together to operate in a more coherent and unified way,” Murphy says.

These efforts serve a dual purpose: they measure performance from a backward-looking perspective, but also diagnose how and where a company should behave differently in the future, taking the learnings and applying them to forward-looking initiatives.

Yet Enright thinks that a lack of “how to” or universal guidelines for implementing and measuring purpose makes the task far more difficult than the aforementioned steps may suggest. She recommends that SalterBaxter clients start by measuring what they can, beginning by asking the right questions.

For them, this means the following:

  • What ESG data do you already have?

  • What existing metrics could be repurposed and rethought to triangulate the truth on how your business is delivering on its Purpose?

  • What is not being measured or reported that society will hold you accountable for in the future?

Yet regardless of the challenges, agencies and their clients are not backing away from purpose initiatives.

“A company stating its purpose and staying true to it not only contributes to a more just society, but can also have a positive impact on brand reputation, customer loyalty—particularly among younger audiences—employee retention and recruitment, and ultimately, on the bottom line,” says Lasky. 

Zeno’s research bears this out. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed by Zeno say that having a strong purpose is important. 

“We found that when a brand is perceived to have a strong purpose, consumers were four to six times more likely to buy from, trust, champion and defend companies,” DaSilva says.

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