What’s your purpose?

We all seek to live life with a purpose.

Perhaps our self-defined purpose provides us with a reason to get out of bed in the morning, or is the impetus for community work, continued education, or chasing aspirations.

Purpose is meaningless without action, and this is no different for businesses. While the core purpose of a company is to be economically successful, businesses can exist to create both economic and social value. This “shared value” drives greater results through employee and consumer engagement and action.

In our hyper-competitive and increasingly connected consumer marketplace, we are moving from a transactional business-consumer relationship to an emotional business-consumer relationship. When consumers buy a product, they hope to buy an experience, a lifestyle, or a feeling. More brands are embracing a purpose in an effort to outpace competitors and win consumer hearts and dollars, but not all are doing it for the right reasons, leading to consumer fatigue.

Authenticity and transparency is more important than ever, and for this reason, being a purpose-driven business starts from within.

Given this growing trend, it is important to address misconceptions about the role that purpose plays in an organization. Businesses don’t often have the chance to re-orient their core “purpose”, so it’s important to get it right the first time. This begins with understanding what purpose is and is not.

Purpose is not a mission statement or a mere set of values.

A mission statement is simply a set of language outlining what your company seeks to do.

Your purpose is your brand’s reason for existence, and a challenge to the company and its stakeholders to do good in the world through the mechanism of a business. It is action-driven and infused throughout the business and its people. Purpose drives towards measurable impact — which in turn comes from acting in a purposeful manner, not just talking about it.

Purpose is not a tactic for offsetting a company’s environmental impact.

Traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs seek to offset a business’s carbon footprint or energy usage, or improve its societal impact through fair trade practices or offering better wages — tactics geared towards making consumers feel better about buying that company’s products. But a company does not exist to use less water in manufacturing its line of soft drinks.

A company’s purpose should align with what that company does, such that the company can make a positive impact on the world by leveraging its products, people and talents. Purpose-driven companies seek to go beyond just doing business.

Purpose is not about engaging with a cause only when it’s convenient to the company, nor is it about adding your company’s voice to a crowd.

Consumers see right through cause marketing that lacks authenticity, breeding distrust while wasting company resources.

Purpose is an investment in the future success of a company, its employees, and society. It should be always on, always communicated, and considered at all levels of the business, by all stakeholders. What was once a fringe benefit of a responsible company is now a game changer for business.

Purpose is not a marketing tactic.

A purpose adopted just so that a company can better market its products is not a true purpose, but simply an effort to increase economic impact.

Impact must be measurable — and that quantifiable impact, and the emotions that impact creates, is what should be marketed. Purpose is as much about sparking passion among employees and consumers as it is making a difference in the world.

Purpose is an organization or brand’s aspirational reason for being; its authentic and relevant meaning in the world, beyond just profits.

Building a Purpose Framework

Purpose is something your company can own, and should be as unique as your products, processes, and people.

Purpose can be born from both the struggles and successes of your company, as the desire of an individual or organization to create a positive impact on society often stems from the identification of a problem.

Purpose can — and should — be disruptive and ambitious. Authentically “living” your company’s purpose may require tradeoffs that place society’s needs above profit — such as Patagonia’s request that consumers repair their products rather than buy new ones. Telling customers not to buy your product is a risky move — but it instills customer loyalty and appreciation for the brand’s perspective and willingness to do good in the world.

Defining a company’s purpose takes time and effort. Purpose immersion sessions, brand explorations, and data-driven research can all be used through this discovery process. Key stakeholders should be involved at all stages of this process — from the CEO to the newest employees. Purpose discovery should be approached just like the development of a product: through research, ideation, validation, testing, and deployment.

The following considerations are key to landing on a company’s true purpose:

  • Why did we start this company?
  • What sets our brand apart from our competitors?
  • What are our core brand strengths?
  • How do we currently communicate and “live” our mission?
  • What are we most proud of as a company?
  • How is the success of our company better for the world?

From these questions, stakeholders can begin to develop a purpose framework, which should integrate into a company’s brand mission, vision, identity, personality, and positioning.

Making the Case for Purpose

It’s not uncommon for leadership to be skeptical of investing in a purpose and programs to implement it. Your company might already have a purpose, but does not communicate it or act on it — and purpose requires action.

Data and research are key to making a business case for building a purpose-driven company and culture, as is the creation of short- and long-term objectives that map out projected social and business growth milestones.

Purpose-driven companies must be just as tactical about their employee and consumer engagement initiatives as they are about achieving their sales and business development goals.

Defining a purpose is much like stating a vision, allowing a company to first look to the future, and then work backward to develop strategies to achieve that vision. With stakeholder buy-in and a succinct vision for the future, companies can move from a purely transactional consumer relationship to an emotional relationship. They begin to sell a lifestyle and a vision rather than a product.

Integrating Purpose

For purpose-driven strategies to work, companies must find, integrate, and amplify their purpose through a smart, authentic, data-driven, and empathetic approach that starts from within. This sets purpose up such that it is core to your company, its values, and its employees — like a planted seed that will bloom only if nurtured by the company itself. If your stakeholders don’t believe in your purpose, why would your consumers?

Once stakeholders define a purpose, it’s time to get employee buy-in. Employee passions and desires should align with the company purpose; and for this reason, it is important to include employees in the identification and development of your company’s purpose. What causes would your employees be proud to publicly support? Besides generating a sense of inclusion and excitement, employees should feel that a purposeful career has a positive impact on their life and overall wellbeing. They should also be provided with a forum in which they can share suggestions, ideas, and general feedback.

Measuring the success of employee engagement programs should be implemented through regular data collection — from employee surveys and interviews, amount of money given, and number volunteer hours.

Employees should be provided with the time and resources to act on their company’s purpose — whether through volunteer opportunities, community service days, giving programs, or otherwise. Properly implemented CSR programs can reduce company turnover by up to 50%, and increase productivity up to 13%. Even more, a sense of employee purpose can instill focus and commitment during tough business times.

On a deeper level, employees should think and act with their company’s purpose in mind each and every day. If a financial software company determines that their purpose is to make banking easy and empowering for all, then their engineers should develop products with this purpose in mind. Perhaps that software will be deployed through a partner program to assist women entrepreneurs in developing countries. Employees should seek to empower those women in their journey to business success as much as they empower their paying customers to take control of their finances and succeed.

This mindset must come from company leadership. C-suite executives must walk the talk and serve as examples within their company, championing new ideas or programs, participating in opportunities to give back, and challenging the company to live its purpose each and every day.

Spreading the Good News

Cause marketing is not going away any time soon, but it’s becoming more difficult for companies to stand out when it seems that every brand is creating a pink breast cancer awareness product, or asking for donations at the register.

Your company might be operating with purpose in a disruptive and unique manner, and standing out in a noisy cause marketing space requires the collection, translation, and communication of data that captures your impact. Purpose can provide even the most straightforward products a new life and appeal, giving companies a valuable edge over competitors.

Stories are key to communicating data in a way that is understandable and illustrative of the impact your company is making. Developing and deploying a purpose from within sets a business up to tell an authentic story, or purpose narrative.

Telling this story is just as important as asking for stories from employees, leaders, and consumers. Making the employee and consumer part of your purpose-led story gives that individual a sense of ownership, positioning them as change-makers driving a movement. For this reason, cause marketing programs and tactics should be inclusive and ask not only for support, but action — inspiring loyalty and brand goodwill.

Partners are key to amplifying your purpose-driven story and giving it a life of its own. By engaging communities, nonprofit or NGO partners, stakeholders, and consumers, companies are able to create self-sustaining purpose frameworks that live and operate beyond seasonal marketing campaigns or programs.

With purpose integrated at all levels of a business, communicated in a compelling and inclusive manner, and built to achieve a long-term vision, it becomes something larger than the company and its people. It becomes a movement that can propel your business to create greater shared value that drives long-term growth.

A Purposeful Future

As companies shift from traditional CSR and cause marketing to adopting an all-encompassing purpose, we will see more companies built with purpose at their core from day one. Doing good while making a profit will become imperative to winning consumer loyalty and dollars to edge out competition.

Relationship between brands, consumers, and partners will continue to evolve such that emotion and action will be the drivers of business success. Individuals will continue to seek out companies that operate with a purpose, giving them the opportunity to make a career while participating in something bigger than themselves; and consumers will continue to seek out products that make them feel good about where they direct their dollars and attention.

The widespread adoption and implementation of purpose-driven initiatives will begin to have a larger impact on society itself, creating a better world for this generation of the next. And it starts today.