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Doing Well by Doing Good: Becoming a Purpose-driven Company

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

What does your business stand for? If you don’t have a quick answer, don’t worry. Most companies are too busy with day-to-day concerns like growth and profitability to ponder the “bigger” questions. But it’s worth thinking about. As the world becomes more connected, businesses no longer have the luxury of efficient anonymity. For many consumers, quality products and service aren’t enough anymore. They expect you to have bigger commitments, and even a “voice” on a range of issues. They want you to stand for something.

So what exactly is a “purpose”? Bill Damon, author of Path to Purpose, defines it as a “long-term, forward-looking intention to accomplish aims that are both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” Purpose-driven companies do business in a way that provides both internal satisfaction and a benefit to society at large. It’s important to note that a company purpose is different than a company mission: your mission might be to build a market-leading health-management app, but your purpose might be working toward a more affordable, cost-transparent healthcare system. As Patrick Cook-Deegan and Kendall Cotton Bronk explain in their Fast Company article on the subject, “A mission is the what you’re trying to accomplish, and a purpose is the why.”

The good news? There appears to be a close link between purpose and profitability. Consider international consumer goods manufacturer Unilever, which reports that its “sustainable living” brands are growing 50 percent faster than its other brands. In a 10-year study that formed the basis of the book GROW: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, Jim Stengel, in partnership with consultancy Millward Brown, found that the stocks of 50 purpose-driven brands—including Natura, Stonyfield Farm and Wegmans—performed 400% better than the S&P 500.

Purpose-driven companies also seem to have an easier time attracting dedicated employees. Your social commitments can serve as a rallying point for your workforce. Those who are willing to roll up their sleeves for a good cause could well become your most loyal employees, and a powerful recruitment tool for like-minded professionals.

There’s evidence, too, that customers are willing to pay more for socially aware brands. A paragon of corporate responsibility since the 1970s, California-based outdoor clothing maker Patagonia commands a premium for its products. The company would argue that its quality materials and environmentally sound business practices warrant the higher prices, and the loyalty the brand garners is unquestioned. In 2011, with its “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, Patagonia took the radical step of discouraging customers from buying its products. While intended to remind audiences of how their buying habits impact the planet, the campaign actually managed to boost sales. It also reasserted the company’s values, including its commitment to environmental protection.

Identifying and living out your company’s purpose is a chance to widen the circle and invite your customers and colleagues to be a part of something bigger. Here are a few thoughts on how to do it successfully:

Choose your purpose with care

Be alert to political hot buttons. Offering to donate 10% of every sale to eradicating the Zika virus probably won’t be controversial. Offering to donate 10% of every sale to free access to birth control might be a different matter. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t stick your neck out for a cause or topic you’re passionate about, but you should also be aware of the possible consequences of doing so. Also, be deliberate about what you say. In today’s online landscape, a seemingly innocuous comment can grow to vast, brand-wrecking dimensions within minutes. As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard wryly observed, “Living the examined life is a pain in the ass.” 

Make purpose part of your business strategy

If you’re living your values but no one notices, are you really living them? You might be doing great work, but if you’re not keeping track and amplifying it, you’re not making the most of the opportunity. Take the time to measure your social impact. Quantify the good you’re doing.

Another way to build purpose into your brand—and to signal your intent to consumers—is to form a benefit corporation or “B Corp.” An official corporate designation currently available in 35 U.S. states, a B Corp Certification is the only standard that measures “a company’s entire social and environmental performance.” Taking into account everything from your materials and supply chain to your charitable giving habits and employee benefits, B Corp Certification indicates that your business meets “the highest standards of verified performance.” For knowledgeable consumers, seeing the B Corp logo displayed on your website or products can be a valuable affinity-building tool.

Wear your standards on your sleeve

Speak up. Tell the world what you stand for. Seattle-based pizza chain MOD Pizza has staked out a position as “a force for positive social impact by doing what it does best—employing and feeding people.” Beyond its commitment to hiring formerly homeless and incarcerated workers, as well as individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, MOD Pizza believes in offering high-quality food at affordable prices. On its website, MOD Pizza says, “If we wouldn’t serve it to our kids, we won’t serve it to you.” The underlying message is, “We treat you like family.” That’s a powerful statement.

Listen as much as you talk

Ethical shoemaker TOMS dedicates a portion of its website to “the stories behind your impact.” Tiles on the page encourage visitors to take a deeper dive into a variety of issues, from the company’s global work for clean water and empowering urban youth to ending gun violence. The stories are inviting, digestible and not at all “preachy.” Most importantly, they offer visitors a direct way to get involved and to become part of the story. (It’s worth noting that they also serve an important business function, enabling TOMS to track and measure what causes resonate most with its customers.)

Be consistent

When living your purpose, consistency is key. Don’t be reactive. Don’t glom onto every cause or change course with every expression of public sentiment. As writer Humphrey Couchman with UK creative agency Fabrik Brands asserted in a post on the subject, “[a] strong brand doesn’t just refresh every couple of years—it evolves. Your ideology will give you the compass you need to remain consistent and likeable over time.”

Be authentic

If your company appears to have grown a conscience overnight, there’s a good chance someone will sniff it out. Sanctimony isn’t a good look on anyone, especially the recently converted. Many of today’s consumers are sensitive to “virtue signaling,” and if you’re not walking your talk, you’ll quickly be exposed as a fraud or hypocrite—and nothing has the power to amplify faults like social media. When personal-care products giant Gillette launched an ad taking on toxic masculinity, the online blowback was swift, with observers criticizing everything from the company’s habit of charging more for its pastel-hued “women’s” razors to its history of female-objectifying advertising. Keep in mind: the new model of corporate responsibility has less to do with what you say than the values you exemplify in everyday life.

Ready to find your purpose?

Let Trellist help your organization define and live out its purpose in an authentic way. Our brand strategists can help you connect your business to a greater purpose, develop compelling voice and messaging standards, and create a visual vocabulary that differentiates your brand and aligns with your values. Contact us to learn more.

About the author

Kent Priestley

Marketing Communications
Drawing on a professional background that spans multiple consumer and B2B industries, Kent works with Trellist clients to understand their business needs and develop communications strategies and content that are impactful, effective and on brand.

About Trellist

Trellist is a professional services firm delivering performance-driven business solutions that are flexible, innovative, and optimized to maximize efficiency and return. The firm consults on, and integrates, data with marketing, design, technology, and digital services for clients at the global, national, and regional level. Trellist utilizes a unique approach to business—from the firm's employee-shared structure, to how it partners with its clients. 


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