Purpose Is Profitable.
How are you thinking about purpose for your business? This site is about how things are done, how they should be done, and what role you can play in creating a better normal.
For years, purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives have largely been viewed by boards and C-suite executives as nice-to-have but nonessential elements of business. Window dressing.
Maybe a social-good effort would get attention after a business crisis or a national disaster. Perhaps a consumer activist shared an impactful viral video they stumbled upon in their social streams. But as soon as the news cycle moved on, it was back to reviewing quarterly earnings.
A new voice has entered the conversation; and this one is the world’s largest shareholder – Larry Fink, Chief Executive Officer of BlackRock. Fink’s recent letter to CEOs of publicly traded companies demands that businesses publicly commit to a social purpose, and adopt a shareholder-driven approach to management, strategy and governance as an essential element to long-term viability.
As a board member of a publicly traded company, as an owner of a small business, as a career marketing professional, as a citizen, as a millennial and as a father, I couldn’t agree more. Never have all the hats I wear been so aligned and so incentivized towards the same thing. And the opportunities presented by purpose have never been so big. As we know, change is never easy.
Larry Fink’s recent letter to CEOs of publicly traded companies demands that businesses publicly commit to a social purpose, and adopt a shareholder-driven approach to management, strategy and governance as an essential element to long-term viability.
Some will capitalize on the opportunity to put purpose at the center of their business, probably the same companies who succeeded at putting digital at the center of their businesses. Some will struggle with this disruption, much like business struggled with digital disruption.
But the challenge brings opportunities for marketers willing to assert themselves in C-suites and boardrooms. The convergence of demand from consumers and shareholders for a purpose-driven approach to business and brand value brings a moment for marketers to step up and be the expert visionaries able to help businesses capitalize on the movement. The opportunity around purpose is now as big and powerful as being the digital guru was 10 years ago.
Madison Avenue, this is the moment to use our collective might to help our clients achieve the market’s new mandate. We are the experts who bill ourselves as the consumer whisperers. We insist we understand their voice. Time to use it. We have the expertise to serve as the active, engaged agents needed to guide companies down the path of shared value. It’s on us to drive profit through purpose.
Like with digital, it’s not enough to talk the talk to our clients, we ourselves must become purpose-driven as an industry. We need to invest in training, diversity and human development. Employees are not short-term disposable assets. Treat talent like the humans they are, not like interchangeable parts. That’s not how you treat stakeholders.
Let’s also treat our audience well. Enough brand campaigns that feed the forces of anxiety and compulsive consumption. Stop objectifying women in ads, and in the office. Stop working for brands whose existence does more harm than good. We have been complicit in helping brands cause many societal problems, and we can’t be any longer.
There is a model for businesses thriving in moments of disruption — digital. We need to make purpose the "new digital", so we can redirect billions in brand spending towards social good and a fundamental change in the relationship between consumers, brands and societies.
And like digital, we must take purpose beyond the marketing department and into the core of the operation. To do that, we need to understand how to measure its impact on the entire organization’s ecosystem.
We have the responsibility to make sure leaders are mindful, responsible stewards of their brand’s power to influence the world and its citizens.
The free market is supposed to thrive when the interests of the business who operate in it are balanced by the unseen force of consumer demand, the famous invisible hand. Since businesses can’t exist without customers, the customer is the best check on their power. Makes sense, in theory. But in practice, this has been corrupted to a breaking point.
See, over the past few decades, businesses have done everything possible to break the invisible hand. They force customers with important complaints into individual, secret forced arbitration instead of public class action lawsuits. They have diversified to the point where they are insulated from consumer boycotts or major corporate accidents. BP didn’t collapse from spewing oil into the gulf for months. Banks made people believe that self-regulation was a real thing. Too many industries are oligopolies or outright monopolies- search, cable/internet providers, newspapers, health insurance, cell phones, energy and don’t even get me started on the airlines. None of this is good for consumers.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride. And that’s OK. Profound, worthwhile change is never easy and it’s not a straight line.
Businesses also started hacking away at their workforces. Cost cutting, down-sizing, outsourcing, freelancing, wage-freezes, pay gaps and promoting “right to work” laws have all have been used to diminish the power of labor to address their needs. And the results are visible today. We have a minimum wage that isn’t enough to keep your self out of the social safety net. Productivity is off the charts, profitability is off the charts, the market is up. But all the value created by this productivity and profit is being extracted and hoarded by shareholders.
But the most damaging thing the business community has done to the invisible hand is to corrupt the political process. First, they started buying politicians with lobbyists. Then, they won Citizens United and the coffers were opened to back friendly candidates and campaigns. Finally, they have argued that policies like Dodd Frank or the CPFB were government interference in the “free market.” Regulation run amok. It isn’t. That’s just bullshit.
You see, the invisible hand manifests in two ways in a republic. The dollar vote and the real vote. That’s because “Consumers” are also “Employees” and are also “Voters.” In our country, when citizens vote for officials who want to regulate businesses and protect the environment like we did in 2008, and those officials implement those policies (DoddFrank, CPFB, etc), it is a righteous manifestation of the invisible hand. It is not government interference.
And here’s the key thing to remember. The people who wield the invisible hand – consumers, citizens and employees – are really the same person. On the weekends, as citizens, they wear pink hats to #resist. When they come to work the next day they are calling you out for #MeToo or engaging in a #FightFor15 or striking for better pay (I heart teachers). And finally, as consumers, they are punishing you for advertising in the wrong places, they are trolling you on social media for being dishonest, and they are buying your purpose driven competitor’s product. Business should recognize these trends as the fingers of the invisible hand balling itself into a visible fist and demanding a new pattern of behavior, an urgent, permanent commitment to purpose and social responsibility. And businesses better find their purpose before the “visible fist” punches them right in the wallet.
Putting purpose at the center of an existing business will come with investment and will take time. Talent, operations, marketing, governance and many other areas will require big change. How do you decide whether it’s worth it?
Purpose can be measured, tracked and evaluated like many other strategies. Of course, it can drive sales. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, in the same way ecommerce is just a slice of value created by digital. Yes, revenue matters. But taking digital beyond marketing and into the rest of your business enabled you to operate better, communicate better, plan better, and grow in completely new ways.
Putting purpose at the center of your business is no different, and you have to value it accordingly. Purpose provides a focus and framework for top-line growth and evaluating the business decisions, investments and choices needed to get there. To properly value purpose, you need to be thinking about Total Organizational Value across four categories of KPI — Business, Brand, Operations and Compensation.
Purpose, like digital, can be great for the brand, but its transformative potential will only be realized when it becomes the core of your business.
Sales, Customers, Average Order Value, Margins and more. These are the bottom-line financial metrics essential to your business. You are already reporting on these, and those existing reports serve as benchmarks to determine the success of implementing purpose.
This category views your brand through two lenses, Consumer and Employer. Consumer brand metrics are things like Aided Awareness, Unaided Awareness, NPS, Sentiment, Engagement, Media performance, etc. From an employer perspective, the metrics are reduction in turnover, ease of recruitment, employee morale and reduction in recruiting/turnover costs.
Inspired teams are more effective. A properly de-ployed purpose will result in more effective teams, more engagement, less downtime and overall improved productivity. Again, use your existing productivity metrics, and do some pre–post analysis to value the change.
Incentivize the right behavior. Compensation is where the rubber meets the road. Executive compensation needs to be tied to long-term value creation and business sustainability as measured by independent third-party standards like B Lab, GoodGuide or Just Capital, among others.
The Theory of Change for Modern Marketers: If we make purpose the "new digital", it will redirect billions of dollars in brand spending towards creating social good and a fundamental change in the consumer, brand and culture.
In the early days of digital, it was a strange new thing that most viewed skeptically in many marketing departments and agencies. It was a fad. But in reality, it was a core expectation of a new generation of employees, corporate leaders and consumers. Now it’s at the center of brand’s experience. Purpose is following the same trajectory, it’s just 15 years behind.
It’s a small but growing piece of many budgets, but still seen as a side venture. Lots of small agencies and brands are popping up to serve this need, and the big agencies and brands are starting to recognize they need some expertise.
A wave of M&A in this space is inevitable over the next few years. And, just like digital, purpose is becoming essential to creating a strong platform for long-term business health.
Marketing’s role is to create sustainable business models that drive profit for brands, finally aligning all the collective interests to create a stakeholder-driven economy.”
Businesses spend hundreds of billions of dollars globally on marketing, media and communications. This not only impacts our purchasing behavior, it affects our values and culture as well. If even a few percent of that spending is redirected into culturally and socially constructive messaging and behaviors it will create a positive, self-reinforcing cycle of culture change and social impact on a scale far larger than any individual nonprofit or cause campaign.
First and foremost, a leader must serve the community they seek to lead by creating the opportunities and conditions for the entire community to thrive.
For your team,
it means finding people with the right values and providing them with the environment and mentorship necessary for them to take ownership of their work and grow as people. It also means fair compensation, diversity, work/life balance and family leave that supports strong, modern families.
For your operations,
it means a sustainable, ethical supply chain that values your vendors and the communities.
For your industry,
it means being a living example of a different, better way to build a business.
For your shareholders,
it means educating them on how to value and measure the impact of purpose on the long-term viability of your brand in the marketplace. It’s a smart investment, show them that.
For our society,
it means ensuring your work leaves a positive impact on the world. Your business has tremendous power to influence places, cultures and values; use it responsibly.
Collectively, these humans make up the group of stakeholders you need to consider when making decisions about your business and how you want to lead it. Leading your business with a social purpose is the only way to fulfill your long-term fiduciary responsibility.
Remember, you too are a human being. You breathe the air. You eat the food. You are susceptible to disease. And so are your family, your employees, your customers and the people who live next door to your factory. And so are your shareholders.
Think about the framing of calling the department Human Resources. It labels your company’s most important asset, the human beings who run it, and positions them alongside the other inanimate objects (property) and commodities for exploitation and maximization. Since the phrase is so normalized now, nobody notices; but the implications of this rhetorical framing manifest in the real world.
The current label doesn’t do justice to professionals who work in HR, and it does nothing to position them for success in a mission critical function in any organization. It positions them, and I think most HR professionals would agree, as agents of the company. That framing too often puts them in a position where their role is to protect the company from other people’s bad behavior, execute damage control when necessary, limit exposure to mass layoffs and other unfortunate drudgery. It’s this framing as agents of the company that enables too many HR professionals to rationalize sweeping scandals under the rug and settle repeated harassment lawsuits with NDAs for the women and, until recently, no action against the men. At worst a graceful exit with a sterile excuse like “pursuing other ventures” or “take on a big new challenge.”
Further, this framing limits the benefits they can bring to a company.By being an instrument of the company, they leave the humans without a place to go when they need an independent advocate. And, yes, every HR person I know would swear up and down they would go to the mat for their people. That’s true to a point, but ultimately their goal is usually reconciling two points of view (like an arbiter) as opposed to advocating exclusively from the employees POV (like a fiduciary). This is a fundamental disconnect. The CEO needs to be the arbiter, and the HR person needs to be the employees advocate directly to the CEO. This provides balance to the CFO and COO who are responsible to the company and reporting directly to the CEO. Making HR report to Ops or Finance or Legal is yet another way to disempower them and the employees at large. The employees need someone specifically committed to putting their interests first who has a direct line to the CEO and Board.
It’s time to reframe and rename the HR department. Enter the Resources for Humans Department. A fiduciary for the employees with direct reporting access to the CEO and Board of Directors.
Meet the RH department - Resource for Humans. This department exists to serve the employees by ensuring they are cared for with adequate benefits and working conditions, that they are fairly and equally compensated for their contributions, that they are supported in their growth with training and performance management, and by making sure that the company finds and keeps the best players on the team. They are also responsible for working cross functionally to create a positive and dynamic culture. You might say, they do this now. Yes, they perform these tasks now, but they answer exclusively to the company management. Simply switching their obligation to be a fiduciary for the employees, will change their incentives, their behaviors and the outcomes they drive. Much the same as the advice you get from your investment manager when they switch from being commission driven (serving company management’s interest first) to being a fiduciary of the client (serving the human being’s interests first).
At their core, brands are meant to convey the qualities of the maker. Originally, this began with basic imagery. A stamp. A crest. A mark. Some form of type and graphic printed on some form of package, paper or sign. Done right, it can say a lot. But it’s not exactly human.
As media evolved, brands were able to take on more of the human characteristics of their creators. The first big step was radio. Suddenly there was a real human voice put to a product. Its casting, its tone, its inflection and nuance and emotion all spoke volumes about the brand. So, of course, did the script and music. In addition to having a voice, adland could now tell stories about brands with the most effective forms of human communications, song, or — more specifically — a jingle. This new channel allowed brands to take on whole new levels of humanity.
Of course, the next wave of personification for brands enabled by media was television. Sight, sound and motion collided to change America and the world like few things before it. Madison Avenue was forever altered: more than ever before, brands became a part of culture and used the new medium to make more emotional connections with consumers. While TV is the most human of the traditional media, it is still a one-way message-delivery vehicle.
The latest evolution in the personification of brands is the development of a brandconscience, a sense of morality. People know right from wrong, even the people who run brands. The time has come for brands to demonstrate a commitment to morality by committing to a social purpose.
The digital revolution finally enabled and created the expectation of engagement. Conversation. Dialog with a brand. The internet, and of course social media, gave brands an ability to be interactive and responsive. The internet created transparency. More than ever, brands faced the uncomfortable human experience of having shoppers actually look at how they behaved and demand change when deemed warranted. The horror.
The latest evolution in the personification of brands is the development of a brand conscience, a sense of morality. People know right from wrong, even the people who run brands. The time has come for brands to demonstrate a commitment to morality by committing to a social purpose. While past evolutions were accompanied by a new channel for communications, this one is focused on something more sophisticated, a new set of behaviors.
For brands to continue to be part of culture and commerce, they must do more than create wealth for their shareholders, they must create shared value for all of their stakeholders.
Do you remember the first website you built? What about the first email campaign? Did you think it was as simple as bringing your print ads and brochures onto the internet? Just like digital, Purpose-Driven Branding is a complex, well-developed ecosystem of issues, strategies, tactics and best-practices.
Having an experienced, expert partner is important. It’s very easy to make a mistake and recovering can be costly and time-consuming. Social issues are complicated for businesses. Which issue do you engage on? How do you engage with the issue to create social impact and business impact? How does your brand and corporate track record of policy and behavior impact the issue?
Purpose, when done right, requires a level of cross-functional coordination that takes time and expertise to build. It’s not just getting legal to sign off on the design of your “Fearless Girl” statue. It’s making sure you aren’t about to settle a lawsuit for pay discrimination. Or, better still, it’s understanding that you are about to settle a suit and finding ways to use that settlement for future opportunities. Imagine seeing a story that shared how State Street Global Advisors, the creator of the Fearless Girl statue, instituted major internal reforms after settling a claim on gender pay equity. You didn’t.
Imagine seeing a new statue honoring the bravery of the women who knew their worth and fought hard to secure financial parity. You didn’t. Both would have been truly great initiatives. Instead, State Street Global wound up with egg on their brand.
Show me your budget, and I will show you your values
Your company and brand values can’t be created or uncovered in a conference room or workshop or offsite no matter how many post-it notes you stick up on the white board. Your values can only be identified by thorough and honest observation of your brand’s behavior in the world.
How and when do you hire, treat, pay and if necessary fire employees? If someone works for you 40 hours a week, but still needs SNAP and Medicaid, do you really value your employees or families or support moms and dads? Do you really care about communities? For the record, if you employ someone at the current federal minimum wage, this applies to you.
Your values are lived in your labor policy, manufacturing process, pricing, distribution, marketing, thought leadership and company leadership every day.
Don’t worry if you take a look under the hood and don’t like what you see. You have the power to change it. Determine the values you would like to see. Identify the policy changes you would have to make to live those values. Then get started implementing them.
Framing your narrative the right way is essential to success. The frame dictates the language, the role of each stake-holder, the terms of engagement and the measures of success.The key is to proactively frame the narrative, and that process starts by defining yourself, defining the problem and defining what’s at stake.
It may sound simple, but you have to define yourself on your terms, internally and externally. You do this with a clear, concise and compelling value proposition based on your brand’s purpose. And you must communicate it publicly, repeatedly and continuously. Otherwise, your competition will define you on their terms, or worse, you won’t have any definition at all.
If you don’t define yourself, someone else will.
The problem can take different forms: a competitive brand, the media, the other candidate, apathy, or a specific social problem like poverty or hunger. Regardless of what it is, you must define it for your stakeholders and for those you seek to recruit on terms that allow you to own the narrative. Framing the problem on your terms from the start is key to winning the argument in the long run.
It has to matter to break through. People have never had more to consider. Climate change is destroying the earth. War and strife have created 60 million refugees. Our politics is utterly dysfunctional. Kids are being hunted in schools. And they have 190 unopened emails to get to. You have to make your framing so compelling to your audience that it rises above the din to capture their attention and inspire a change in behavior.
Once you have identified the frame and defined the situation, you need to translate that into something practical, a value proposition.
The traditional value proposition was the USP — Unique Selling Proposition. The USP builds a brand by driving differentiation based on some sort of product feature or benefit, and measuring the strategy and creative work on whether it enhanced that differentiation. Features. Benefits. RTBs. Many a marketer made a living on the USP, GBP or Key Differentiators. But all this differentiation drove the audience further apart, and at a macro level it contributed to a pervasive tribalism that is a major source of social strife around the world.
Common Value Proposition:
An idea that inspires and unites the top 1% and bottom 1% on common, equal ground.
A purpose-driven brand must fundamentally be about the common values that bring your brand community together. Identify the common values that you, your suppliers, your partners, your staff, your shareholders and your customers can unite around; and use that foundation as the heart of your business plan, your brand purpose and your creative brief(s).
Purpose isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. But it can often be hard to know where you are and where you should be going. The six checkpoints below can help you frame your thinking and track your progress. Each checkpoint brings a different level of effort and reward from the marketplace. It also has a different name which means something different, although you probably see the words used interchangeably now.
Checkpoint 1: Sponsorships (aka Checkbook Philanthropy)
This is what it sounds like. Little effort, little reward. You write a check to a charity, they put your logo on a t-shirt, give you a table at a dinner, or put an ad in an ad journal. The organizations are happy to take your money. The board may like it. Some staff feel good. In the old days this was enough, now if this is all you’re doing consumers know you’re phoning it in and they don’t give you credit for it (unless your check is 8-figures).
Checkpoint 2: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
You’re probably doing this too. It’s important work. Optimizing your supply chain for human rights protections and environmental sustainability. Updating your labor and benefit policies. Corporate volunteer days. Maybe a corporate foundation. Training teams on unconscious bias, diversity, inclusion and workplace harassment. This is good stuff. You can talk about it on panels. You can write it up in the annual report; but again, it’s table stakes. You don’t get bonus points for doing it, you can only lose points for not doing it.
Checkpoint 3: Cause Marketing
This is where you start to earn points with actual consumers, and this is where many brands are right now. Cause Marketing is what happens when you take some marketing budget, partner with a nonprofit and do a co-branded effort. It could be a donation to a charity at a cash register, it could be a special version of a product like the RED iPhone, or it could be a big sustained partnership like Subaru does with LLS, ASPCA and others. The key components are partnering with a nonprofit and using your money to help their brand raise money and awareness while their brand helps you build equity with your audience and theirs.
Checkpoint 4: Issue Campaigning
Here is where it starts to get complicated. Issue campaigning is like the force. It has both light and dark within it. The dark side lives on K-Street with the lobbyists and the trade associations trying to convince us that coal can be clean or banks can regulate themselves. The light side looks like brands fighting for Net Neutrality, suing to save national parks, and threatening to move corporate HQ when your state decides to discriminate against LGBTQ community. This will earn you mega points if you do it well. But make sure you reconcile the dark side of your brand/business’s issue work with the light side your consumers want you to do.
Checkpoint 5: Purpose Driven Branding
This is where some companies are really thriving now. It’s about building your brand on a purpose, not just a single campaign. Dove is a classic example, building its brand on a more responsible definition of beauty for a decade. This is a great example to follow, but Dove still lives within a holding company where the other brands vary in their degree of purpose. This is where most brands should be striving to get in the next 2-3 years.
Checkpoint 6: Purpose Driven Businesses
The pinnacle. This is where the business model itself is committed to a double or triple bottom line. It’s a permanent buy one give one model, a public benefit corporation or a certified B-corp. Purpose drives the brand with consumers, it drives the business decisions in the board room, and it’s what every brand and business should strive to be to stay relevant in the 21st Century.
The Theory of Change
Another helpful thing on the journey to purpose is to specifically identify what has to change and how that change will work. Enter, the Theory of Change. The Theory of Change is the “How” whereas Purpose is the “why”? You have one that governs the entire brand, and then create bespoke theories for different campaigns or communications that all align to the governing theory of change. Maybe you want consumers to stop buying a competitor’s product. Maybe you need to introduce a totally new technology. Maybe you need to create a new market entirely. Or maybe you just need to get people signed up for e-statements.
Regardless of the change you need to make, a way to get better work out of your agency would be to reframe your briefs around theories of change. Here is a simple Mad-libs version of a Theory of Change that can help you frame the thinking in your brief:
If we do this meaningful, public thing,
we will make this specific change,
which will create this specific benefit.
Take a look at the article above labeled Theory of Change for a practical example.
This is your answer to the question, “What is the point of your effort?”It connects your brand purpose and marketing agenda with the change you want to make and the impact it will have on the world. And yes, it has to be this simple. If we can’t boil it down to this, we need to keep working.
If you’re clever, you can use your journey to purpose as a brand value enhancement. Being the change, and being an example for others to follow, is a role that is increasingly rewarded by consumers, share-holders and the press. It may be a little uncomfortable, but exposing vulnerability is the most authentic and human thing your brand can do.
Be honest and transparent about where you are starting. One of the biggest mistakes a brand can make is to over-set expectations about what it’s going to do. People know you aren’t going to be the second coming. Set and manage reasonable, measurable expectations relating to timing, cost, impact and what success looks like. Prepare your stakeholders for the inevitable twists and turns and adjustments that you will have to make.
Let’s also remember to be forgiving. Even the best intentioned amongst us will make mistakes along the way. Rather than jump all over each other, we need to pick each other up and keep moving forward. Just because brands and companies aren’t perfect today doesn’t mean they shouldn’t celebrate and be celebrated for the real improvements that they do make.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride. And that’s OK. Profound, worthwhile change is never easy and it’s not a straight line.