Where do you start with purpose if you're not born with it? Where do you start with purpose if you're not born with it?

With consumer trust in brands and business in a slump, it is not surprising that people are demanding proof and genuine business transformation from organisations. Yet the overwhelming brand response seems to have been to engineer purpose by powerpoint, one marketing campaign after another.

A clear example of this is the new Gillette #MeToo commercial. The commercial has been the subject of recent controversy with over 27 million views and 1.3 million dislikes on YouTube and an angry tweetstorm from customers. For many the ad was received with scepticism and branded ‘purpose washing’. This shows that the big question remains:

How do you shift the dial from one-off purpose-driven campaigns to using purpose to drive business transformation that will propel progress, participation and innovation?

Purpose can no longer be achieved with bolt-on social marketing or cause-related initiatives; the expectation is that organisations should behave coherently and credibly across all areas of operations, behaviours and communications. Beyond grandiose ideals of what a purpose should or shouldn’t be, many businesses are simply missing the trick to leverage their sustainability strategy and actions as the ultimate proof of purpose.

This implies two things

  • That marcomms teams have better sight and understanding of their business’ global sustainability strategy
  • That the purpose and sustainability strategy have to be connected

The first point is a conversation for another time – suffice to say there is lots still to be done!

The second point goes a long way to answering a question we often get:  “Where do you start with purpose if you’re not born with it?”

Step 1: Be coherent  


The key connection between sustainability and purpose lies at the intersection of your material impacts and what you are doing to reduce your impact (Sustainability) and where you want to make a positive difference (purpose).

So the starting point for a credible purpose is to identify your most relevant issues through a materiality assessment, horizons scanning, and or stakeholder interviews.  To be credible your sustainability ambitions and purpose need to go hand in hand. By understanding the societal need through expert insight before diving in head first, this will be absolutely key to building your robust foundation.

This applies as much to what happens in the supply chain, to how a business is rated as an employer, to how consistently these values are expressed through the products on offer.  Only those businesses living their purpose authentically through their internal culture and bringing it to life within corporate behaviours unlock the full value of purpose.

Step 2: Walk the Talk

Credibility comes from doing, not saying.

We work with a simple behaviours framework that looks at how you need to ‘live’ your purpose across 5 key behaviours:

-       Leadership behaviours

-       Operational behaviours

-       Supply Chain behaviours

-       Employee behaviours

-       Brand and Creative behaviours

At our ‘Future of Social Activism’ event, held in London on 29th January this year we were joined by Katie Leggett Sustainability Manager at Innocent Drinks, who stated;

We don’t communicate our purpose. We simply leverage all the good things that come out of being true to our purpose.”

Katie Leggett Sustainability Manager - Innocent Drinks

Interesting, given that Innocent Drinks would be perceived by many as a leading purpose brand.

Another great example of a purpose led brand is the The Body Shop. The Body Shop have recently involved their HR teams in training their in-store teams to feel confident in talking about the issues that The Body Shop is campaigning and lobbying for e.g. Animal Testing. Not only is this changing employees’ behaviour but it is also creatively driving new experiences in-store to drive engagement and reputation through purpose. 

This is where the credibility and the ROI of purpose is to be found – in coherent behaviours and business transformation.

Step 3: Value progress, not perfection


It seems to me that we have missed the point on purpose.

In making purpose about having a great campaign, and seeing many getting it wrong, brands have developed an expectation that purpose needs to be perfect.

It needs to be right and credible, but all stakeholders today are demanding honest and transparent progress over perfection.

True leadership is admitting that you are at the start of your journey and keen to change your ways. For a purpose to be genuinely delivering societal good, it needs to be industry-changing, and that is not something that can be achieved overnight, nor can it be achieved by one company alone.  By bringing together different stakeholders across your value chain to discuss an issue that is important to your sector, shows true leadership and radical honesty.

Take plastics. ‘Single-use’ was Collin’s dictionary words of the year in 2018 and hot on everybody’s minds, with many companies wanting ‘their plastic moment’ in the upcoming year. Challenging this wave is the ‘Alliance to End Plastic Waste’ which launched last week, bringing together different players in the value chain, from Veolia to P&G, to make clear commitments on plastic reduction and recycling.

Step 4: Join up with competitors.

Real purpose leadership is also about talking to your competitors. Take the example of Starbucks and McDonalds – both companies fight for America’s morning coffee drinkers every day. But the two giants teamed up last year to create the first fully recyclable, compostable cup with the aim of launching in the next three years. This unlikely partnership is a sign of times to come.

With over twenty years’ experience, we have seen that purpose is a business journey that really is in the doing and not the saying. True purpose needs to be at the intersection of your brand essence, sustainability strengths, cultural context and audience zeitgeist. Without it you won’t be credible, unlock ROI, drive growth or influence issues that will impact your customers, employees and wider society.

Razor by icongeek from the Noun Project


For details on how we use your personal information, see our Privacy Notice.