Purpose: Everyone Wants It, But What Does It Actually Mean?

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By: Alison DaSilva, Executive Vice President

Purpose has become a catch-all phrase that means different things to different people. Consumers are demanding that companies do more than make a profit and are basing their decisions on what to buy and where to work based on a company’s responsible business practices and support of social and environmental issues. 

CEOs and business leaders are responding. Eighty percent of global CEOs believe that demonstrating a commitment to Purpose is a differentiator in their industry. Two-thirds are increasing their investments in CSR and the marketing spend in cause continues to increase year over year.

Still, although consumers and business leaders alike are seeking Purpose, most are unsure of what it really means. And, the semantics of Purpose are fractured and sometimes confusing – we see the terms Sustainability, Citizenship, CSR, Cause, Shared Value used interchangeably with Purpose, further confusing the lexicon. Yet, the true tension lies less in the terminology and more in knowing what Purpose means for an organization – and how companies can authentically lead with Purpose at the core. 

At Cone, we believe Purpose is more than a mission statement or commitment of values. Purpose defines an organization’s authentic role and value in society that allows it to simultaneously grow its business and positively impact the world. It must be deeply embedded within the organization, the brand and the experience that is delivered.

For some, like Patagonia, TOMS and all B Corps, Purpose drives every aspect of the business and is pervasive throughout the organization and brand. But Purpose is not elitist nor is it unattainable. Purpose is multi-faceted, and there are many ways that companies can demonstrate their Purpose in an authentic way, as long as they are clear on their objectives, goals and current and future commitments.

There are five key ways companies can approach to Purpose based on what they are striving to accomplish and can deliver upon:

  • Purpose Brand Strategy: The most macro level, this is about identifying and defining an organization’s role and value in society, then articulating and leveraging the organization as a force to positively impact society and the world.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): Implementing responsible business practices and operations to deliver economic, social and environmental benefits to all stakeholders.
  • Social Impact: Leveraging social investments to advance the well-being of communities and important social issues.
  • Social Marketing: Influencing behavior change that benefits individuals and societies.
  • Brand Communications: Connecting to hearts of consumers beyond product attributes on issues that matter.

As we look at the multi-dimensional nature of Purpose, it’s important to remember that one approach is not better than the other and oftentimes companies are doing many of these things at once. But each approach meets different goals and requires a different level and type of commitment, investment and institutional will. To be authentic, companies need to evaluate what they are looking to accomplish and align on the best approach.

Purpose is not a bolt-on strategy or “here-today-gone-tomorrow” promotion. Wherever an organization is in its Purpose journey, the most critical aspect is to ensure it is living its Purpose and “walking the talk.” It is critical that Purpose is pulled through the business practices and operations and is reflective of how that organization engages with relevant stakeholders.

In 2017, we saw many companies fall down by chasing Purpose. Let’s have 2018 be the year that we take better care and time to determine the role a company can play in society and the approach that is authentically right-sized for that organization.