The Pursuit of Authentic Brand Purpose

The idea of good corporate citizenship has been around for years, but it’s more of a business imperative today than ever before. Here’s how some of the most successful companies are getting it right – by doing what’s right.

What’s your brand’s purpose? Can you express it clearly in language that you actually believe? Does it drive your decisions? Would someone standing outside your management suite — an employee, a customer, a vendor — be able to say what it is without being told what it is?

What it takes to be a truly purpose-driven company is widely misunderstood. Most brands can’t tell you what their greater social purpose is, much less how it affects their decision making, if at all. Too often, brands chase social purpose as PR window dressing. Yet, true purpose has permanence and can be potent. When social purpose is properly applied, understood, and embraced, a company will treat it preciously, using it to guide decisions large and small that reinforce the brand’s market presence, profitability, and ability to compete.

Everything a company does should reflect its greater purpose, whether in a single marketing campaign or broad company strategy. Sure, all brands have mission statements, vision statements, and lists of core values plastered on their office walls — but purpose is different. In fact, many companies — mine included — succeed with purpose by starting small and building from there.

But before you go proclaiming that you’re now a purpose-driven organization, here are three things you must understand:

Purpose is not a fad – and it’s more relevant than ever.
Purpose is an idea that has permanence, and businesses driven by purpose have been around in one form or another for many years. You’ll find them succeeding in countless industries and at every scale, from mom-and-pop outfits to major multinationals. Some of them wear their purpose on their sleeves, actively recruiting employees and customers into a worldview that reflects their founders’ social priorities. That’s what Yvon Chouinard has been doing since he founded Patagonia 50 years ago, and it’s what gave Whole Foods the cult following that transformed it from a local organic grocery in Austin to a disruptive force — not just in the grocery business but in Americans’ dietary habits.

The idea of good corporate citizenship has been around for ages, but for many companies, it only runs skin deep. These companies hold an employee canned-food drive or present an oversized check to a local charity, and then pat themselves on the back for having a social conscience. But people can smell self-serving PR a mile away, and they’ll reject shallow gestures if they know the brand is actually only interested in squeezing every last penny out of customers or extracting every drop of value out of the environment. At a time when increased tribalism and cultural divides alarm so many people, and when technology has given them the chance to force radical transparency on powerful institutions, social awareness has only grown sharper. A lot of that awareness is now aimed at brands. The smart ones will seize the opportunity to operate with real purpose for the long run.

Purpose is a business discipline.

Brand purpose isn’t an invitation for your people to sit around the campfire holding hands and singing songs — it’s a rigorous business mentality and management skillset you can instill across your organization, no matter its size or industry. Think about what your business looks like today and how it can look once brand purpose becomes an embedded part of your operations. You’ll see how much your current decisions do or don’t reflect your purpose and learn how to steer them in the right direction in the future.

And while most of us would like to think we do good things because they’re the right things to do, the cold realities of business mean if an initiative doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective, then it’s likely to be a hard sell with stakeholders. The good news is that brand purpose promotes commercial success, with clear business outputs you can measure. When you consider that alongside its societal payoff, the logic for embracing brand purpose couldn’t be clearer.

Purpose lives on a spectrum.

Brands can operate with purpose in big ways, as with the cases of Patagonia and KIND, or through small but meaningful efforts centered on one team, product line, or campaign. Anything a company does could (and should) reflect its purpose. It might be an HR initiative that gives employees time off for volunteering with social causes that are important to them or donating a percentage of account staff time to clients’ CSR programs, both of which we do at KWT Global. It might be a marketing effort that highlights a specific social need — one that the company wants others to join it in addressing. Or it could be a new way of vetting suppliers to make sure they’re environmentally friendly and treat their workers fairly. Any sincere effort to change the way you do business counts, even if it’s small at first.

Purpose is pervasive — foundational — and it affects everything a company does. Sure, it will be reflected in specific campaigns, and it will shine clearly during a crisis — there may well be a company foundation or community outreach that embodies it, too — but it will also be conveyed in the actions and communications of the company at every turn, evident in everything from hiring practices to supply-chain sourcing to advertising themes. Purpose-driven companies have an unlimited commitment to acting out their purpose; you can’t escape it even if you try. Once you see — and feel — what purpose can do for your company, you won’t be willing to stay at the low end of the scale. Purpose wants to grow.

Ed.’s note: This article originally ran on PRWeek.com on October 24, 2018.