People are looking for brands that create positive change in the world, and brands are positioned to do this now more than ever before. Studies show that we trust brands more than we do the government. And with companies today rivaling entire countries in size and reach (in 2017, Walmart’s revenue of $485 billion was roughly the same as Belgium’s GDP), brands have the power to make a difference.

Fortunately, brands are heavily rewarded when they put purpose into action. According to Kantar BrandZTM data, brands that people see as having a high positive impact on society have more than doubled their growth over the past 12 years when compared to brands that people see as having low impact. Unilever’s purpose-led brands are a case in point: in 2017 alone, they grew over 50% more than the other brands in their portfolio.

Purpose is becoming a rite of passage for successful brands. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get right. Companies often confuse purpose with siloed CSR initiatives unrelated to their core activities. They also often overinvest in articulating purpose and underinvest in execution. Let’s look at four necessary steps for brands seeking to take purpose seriously.

Learning your Purpose

Learning your purpose is about uncovering what your brand can bring to the world that is culturally relevant and credible, based on the brand’s equity and competencies. Airbnb exists to make people around the world feel they could “belong anywhere.” This purpose is valuable to the world because it taps into a broader social conversation. It is also true to the core competencies and the equity of the business. Hyundai’s purpose of “creating freedom through mobility” means it’s a coherent move for them to welcome women to the driver’s seat when, in June this year, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving. And despite of all the controversy around Nike’s recently aired ‘Dream Crazy’ spot featuring Colin Kaepernick, the polarizing player who started taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality, there is general consensus that Nike’s color-brave stance is coherent with their history, their equity and the expectations of their current and future customers. Business results appear to confirm that Nike’s choice was the right one for them:  online sales following the airing of the ad grew 31%(vs. a 17% increase during the same time period last year).

Living your Purpose

A purpose comes to life when it is lived and breathed daily within an organization. Purpose should permeate both the people and the processes. C-level leadership is instrumental in invoking purpose and inciting employees to use it as a filter when making decisions. Infusing purpose into an organization requires its integration into internal procedures with clear metrics of success.  Hewlett Packard’s purpose is “to create technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere.” HP has made an active commitment to ensure that all teams working on their business reflect the communities they serve. This has driven an increase in the number of women in HP’s marketing leadership from 20% to 50% in two and a half years. Salesforce provides another example of a company living its purpose, in this case by tackling the challenge of income inequality. The company has committed to an annual audit of employee salaries to identify instances of unequal pay. In 2016, Salesforce spent nearly $3 million to eliminate statistically significant differences in pay.

Leading with Purpose

Brands that lead with purpose serve as visible champions and role models. CVS’s purpose, “to help people on their path to better health,” led them to stop selling cigarettes. At the time, that decision—involving the forfeiture of $2 billion in tobacco revenues—was regarded as risky. Yet CVS’s clear leadership in prioritizing customer health drove more than a quarter of a million people to ask pharmacists for guidance in kicking the habit and positioned the company as credible in their $68 billion bid to buy Aetna.

Airbus, a global leader in aeronautics and space products, is another example of a company that is striving to lead with purpose by “pioneering aerospace for a better connected, safer and more prosperous world,” Their 2015 investment in OneWeb, an ambitious project to mass-produce a constellation of low-orbit satellites, will make the internet accessible to everyone. This innovative collaboration will help to realize OneWeb’s vision of bringing connectivity to every school on the planet by 2022, while also opening the door to future growth opportunities for Airbus.

Letting Go

As with child-rearing, there comes a point when a brand needs to let go, inviting others to take up the gauntlet to sustain and evolve its purpose. Truly purposeful brands spark movements. Patagonia is helping people to live out its environmentalist purpose by providing tools and urging communities to take concrete actions. The brand dedicates significant resources to empower those with a shared interest in environmental preservation. They have published a best-practices manual, “Tools for Grass Roots Activists,” created a take-action page on their website that encourages interested citizens to express their concerns, and even filed a recent lawsuit against the Trump Administration over its decision to vastly curtail the preservation of national monuments in Utah.

Movements can also enroll competitors. The Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely took a stand on using only fair-trade, slave-free coca. But they also recognized that the biggest impacts would come from involving the leaders in the chocolate industry. In 2016, the company announced a strategic partnership with the Barry Callebaut group to trace and sustainably source their cocoa. Tony’s Chocolonely openly promotes and builds on Nestlé’s work to prevent child labor. Their focus on this issue and their eagerness to partner with and champion anybody who shares their purpose are .

Of course, brands are at different stages on this purpose journey. The key is to put a stake in the ground, learn from mistakes and continue to enroll employees, customers and the broader public in meaningful dialogue.  In a world where brand experience and engagement are evolving incredibly quickly, a passive approach to purpose is the biggest mistake of all. The more clarity a brand can get on its active contribution to the world and the values it is willing to fight to defend, the better positioned it will be when (not if) it is challenged to stand for more than words on a page.

Learn more about Purpose 2020


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