The Pursuit of Purpose

Three Questions Every Organization Must Answer

IF you haven’t noticed, there is a mad rush in the business world to balance profit with a meaningful brand purpose. Some of the most powerful CEOs have begun openly challenging each other to serve humanity more directly while serving their shareholders. Even the CEO of Blackrock Capital, Larry Fink, not exactly a squishy socialist and ultimately in charge of managing roughly a quarter trillion dollars, put it this way in his annual letter to investors this year:

“Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose — in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”

Wow. That sounds great, but what took everyone so long? Starbucks wired a social conscience into its business model 30 years ago, and Airbnb made it part of its DNA when it only had 75 employees. Perhaps it’s the growing realization that capitalism bereft of a conscience now threatens the survival of the planet. Or, it could be the gap between the wealthiest and everyone else that began nearly four decades ago has suddenly turned into a deep, dark, unbridgeable chasm with a few hundred people on one side and a few billion on the other.

But there is something more at play. It’s more than just unchecked greed.

The free flow of propaganda that has coursed through our media feeds and minds for years has effectively decimated whatever trust we once had for business, governance, politics, our once self-evident truths and in each other. Wars on truth have raged for millennia, often exploiting new waves of information technology to sow disinformation, disruption and deadly conflicts. Hitler may have loved how radio could brainwash 80-million Germans, but he would have really loved Twitter. Feckless social media platforms that exploit the Internet have created a fevered pitch that now twists democracy in real time, hijacks identities and creates reality distortion fields bound by few if any limits for fact or fiction, love or hate.

As a result, few of us know who or what to trust anymore. Even our most trusted avatars of truth that have kept humanity on its rails for centuries — the free press, justice and science — have been marginalized and slandered by despots, wannabe dictators and billionaires who see them for what they are — the biggest threats to their profit and power. Everything and everyone lies, they say. Trust no one but me, they demand.

It’s a hot mess.

Welcome to our disinformation age, when anything based on truth, trust or transparency is at risk like never before. Sadly, the freewheeling democratization of information technology has not led us to a Techno-Libertarian Zuckerbergian Utopia that Silicon Valley visionaries may have wished, but has instead left intelligent thinking seemingly out and willful, if not brazen, ignorance in.

Today, more than half of America equates teams of Pulitzer prize-winning journalists and experts with conspiracy theorists who consider the moon landing staged, the earth flat, climate science a sham, parents of murdered students “crisis actors” and institutions of higher learning a grave threat to society. Regression to tribal hatreds, mindless escapism and a deep cynical apathy are the siren’s call leading our society towards the rocks.

So how do we navigate this chaos? How do we press on with the business of business and win hearts and minds when no one seems to trust anyone not just like them? How will we survive the transparency of three-billion browsing minds and a thirty-billion internet-connected devices? The sudden revival of corporate conscience and the rush for a higher purpose confirms that even the most powerful among us are finally concerned. They should be.

In an exercise of considerable masochism, I began writing a book about all this a month before the 2016 presidential election. Given the degrading state of affairs, I feel compelled to share a bit of that material here in hopes of staving off a little insanity while I complete it. What follows are a few best practices I’ve applied to help brands like Nike, Starbucks and Airbnb champion a higher purpose while profitably reinventing entire industries, as well as a help a legacy brand like Kaiser Permanente (KP), America’s oldest HMO, look within its own collective conscience to rediscover its most meaningful reason for being.

First Step, Look Within

You may already have a sense of how the world views you. It’s not hard to read the roar and ridicule of the Internet, to see what customers and critics love or loathe about you. But to change outside perceptions will require you first look where it matters most, within. Turn off your browser. Whatever is happening out there, it’s been my experience that something inside the organization, something happening or not happening, is driving it.

In 2002, I was asked by the leadership of KP to help them arrest a decade of declining trust. The company’s sheer size, its aging facilities and the dysfunctional industry it helped create had made it the poster child for everything bad about healthcare, rightly or wrongly. What began as an effort to improve its communications ended up a complete brand repositioning that strengthened its most authentic point of difference, reshaped its products and services, gave it a more compelling voice, helped redesign its facilities and rethink the metrics for success.

But the initial spark to reinvent a $60 billion legacy brand began with three simple questions.

But first, a word about process: This all may sound simple, and I have abbreviated it for the reader, but if you wish to fully embrace what follows I suggest you consider an outside, unbiased professional to help manage the project, to keep your bias at bay and your insights real. Finding your higher purpose and the passion that fuels it will require more work, but this is a good start. This should be an anonymous survey across a sample of each function, coded for tenure, rank, age range, location, area of responsibility and sex, etc. Do not ask these questions in a room full of managers with their subordinates present. You will not hear the complete truth.

Done correctly, this exercise will reveal much about your culture, your purpose, your authenticity, and the depths of your corporate conscience.

Question One: What four or five words describe how you think about your brand today?

This isn’t about how you think others perceive your brand. It’s what you think. Consider the good, the bad, the ugly and the off-strategy. Be honest. If your mission or values are being trampled somewhere in the enterprise, you will likely hear about here. If a manager isn’t walking the talk, or you have a complete asshat on the team, you may hear that, too. Whatever you do, never dam the truth. This is your present state.

For Kaiser Permanente, this first question revealed expected gripes about bureaucracy, but also a longing for innovation it once had. KP was created just prior to World War II by an industrialist, Henry Kaiser, and his healthcare partner, Sydney Garfield, MD, to provide pre-paid, affordable insurance to workers of Kaiser Enterprises building dams, aqueducts, and ships for the federal government, often living in construction areas far from established healthcare services. Kaiser and Dr. Garfield provided doctors, nurses and clinics on site before building hospitals and clinics in large markets for the general public. In time, they realized that if they worked as hard at preventing injuries and illnesses as they did treating the sick, they could improve productivity and ensure happier, healthier lives. Imagine that: preventing rather than treating disease.

But KP wasn’t just a health care provider, it was also an insurer. It didn’t necessarily profit by unchecked sickness. The American Medical Association branded Kaiser and Garfield as communists for employing doctors, owning hospitals and offering insurance. Those efficiencies threatened their system. Yet, despite the fact KP had prevention in its DNA, somewhere along the path to providing sick care for an increasingly chronically ill nation, its higher purpose became trapped in the ember of its past. The key survey insight– prevention as a cause — came in answers from senior physicians, nurses and front-line employees who had been there for decades.

To be fair to KP, it’s easy to lose sight of your nobility when you’re running full-out, head-down, looking at your shoe laces. I served as Chief Marketing Officer for Starbucks during its jump to hyperspace in the mid to late ’90s, a time when store openings went from one per week to three per day. That was a highly caffeinated blur. But we kept grounded in our mission every time we spoke with our partners (employees), which was often. Every quarter, senior executives would spread out across the country to lead “Open Forums,” usually late in the afternoon in a hotel conference room, sometimes with hundreds of the green apron faithful. Every forum began with a 15- or 20-minute corporate update before opening it up to questions, comments, criticisms, new ideas or inspiring stories from the front line. The notion for what became Frappuccino was the brainchild of two baristas in Los Angeles. I once drew the short straw for sharing Starbucks’ new body piercing policy (as many holes as you wanted but a limited amount of hardware, as I recall) in an Open Forum in West LA, which was fun. But it was much better to deliver it in person than just announce it with a company-wide email.

But as Starbucks stretched overseas and began opening stores across the street from each other, and as it began hiring executives from Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonalds, the culture in Brewtopia began to shudder like the wings of Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 approaching the speed of sound. Out of concern, we added a few questions to the recurring HR survey to see if we were compromising our mission, our values and people in the pursuit of growth. I referred to this as a “karmometer,” something every organization should have if it is mission-driven and under stress. We did push the organization to its limits, but the dignity inherent in our brand purpose, “To lift the human spirit one cup, one person, one neighborhood at a time,” helped the brand survive the leap from 500 stores to 30,000.

So, the first question should capture the “present state” of your brand — the good, the bad and the conflicted. It’s the here and now. Marvin Gaye sang it best: What’s going on?

Question Two: In five years, what four or five words would you like to overhear a stranger use to describe your brand to someone else?

Imagine five years from now you’re on a flight and you overhear two strangers behind you discussing your company. What words would they use to describe the brand that would make you incredibly proud? Put another way, imagine you’re at a school event for one of your children and you hear a parent or teacher you do not know talking about your son or daughter. What would they say that would bring you to tears of pride and joy? Building a successful company is a lot like parenting. It’s about instilling values, character, resilience, presence and authenticity that will endure.

This second question should help paint a desired future state. Stretch is important here, and no chip shots or short cuts are allowed. Know that “Quality” lost its meaning in the ’80s and that “Trust” cannot be claimed — it must be earned. So, what will help build trust? Greater consistency? More authenticity? More transparency? More innovation? Brand empathy? Integrity? Standing for something? Better leadership? In this question you may hear the desire for a more meaningful and inspiring brand purpose. Listen for that.

Question Three: What’s holding you back?

What can close the gap between the present state and desired future state? What will remove the negatives and barriers? Is it more money? Surprisingly, for most companies I’ve worked with it is not always about resources. It’s often a matter of process, people, priorities or politics. For example, you may find a pent-up desire for greater risk taking and trust in employees. It may be about your systems and procedures. Nearly every company raises some issues about HR and organizational design, likely because it is the most human and therefore imperfect and emotionally-charged part of any company.

Answers to the third question will reveal what you should stop doing; what is holding you back from being a better, not just bigger, company. Responses will also suggest some things you should start doing. As you sift through and bucket similar comments and look for themes, consider what can be done almost immediately. What can happen in six months? What can be done in 18 months? And what would take years to achieve but could provide seed corn for decades? Too often we forget the longer arc in our rush to squeeze more profit out the quarter, month or week we’re in.

Finally, of all the barriers and challenges you see, which present the greatest risk to trust? Start there.

The Role of Strategic Brand Initiatives

Repositioning an enterprise requires much more than a marketing campaign, a slogan or a one-year business plan. It will need silo-crossing, matrix-surfing, fearless brand initiatives that fly in full view of everyone. Unlike a marketing objective or strategy, a brand initiative can take years to accomplish and should be carried forward until it is achieved. They should be visited monthly at the highest level, even if only for 20–30 minutes to track performance. A chief brand officer or CMO can help marshal the process, but the CEO and the leadership team must own the initiatives. And, when one has been achieved, add a new one. There is always work to be done. But never more than four or five at once.

Important tip: The best initiatives are usually a single sentence. When Nike faced a rapid drop in relevancy among influential teen males ­– a real defend London moment in Beaverton — a simple statement like, “Get the edge back with teen males”, was all any of us in design, product management, athlete promo, PR, HR, sales, finance or advertising needed to hear. For my part, Nike’s advertising, the response involved giving Charles Barkley an open microphone and letting him speak his mind about athletes as role models. For Sports Marketing it meant signing up future ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman, to one of Nike’s shorter lived contracts.

But in that same moment, Nike was working on another brand initiative deemed equally important. “Become more relevant to women” symbolized Nike’s struggle to bring women who weren’t elite athletes into the fold. My brief to the insights firm to help us fill the void in our knowledge may have been the briefest brief ever. “We need to know how women think”, had no bias, no preconceptions, no specific guidance. Clean slate. We needed to know everything. One thing that was clear, though, was the risk of holding simultaneous conversations with teen boys and their moms, aunts and grandmothers in front of each other. Brand schizophrenia is not pretty. So, we mitigated the initial risk by focusing on women’s magazines like Glamour, Elle, Vogue, Cosmo and Shape. But the core idea of that campaign was bigger than attracting a new segment and it bolstered rather than leveraged the then-nascent Just Do It campaign. It not only won the magazine publishing industry’s highest single honor in the world for print advertising, the Kelly Award, it opened up a softer, more emotional side of Nike that had more to do with inspiration than aspiring to be like Mike. What began as a strategic move to win over Reebok’s core franchise ended up helping Nike become the ageless, more relevant and meaningful brand we see today.

For KP, the “three questions” survey helped spur an exhaustive “Big Dig” with consumer focus groups from Hawaii to California, Oregon, Colorado, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Each group included a discussion around health, which was mostly positive and glowing, and one around healthcare, which was marked by frustration, anger, disgust and sharp objects. No one was happy. The insights gleaned from the internal survey on prevention led us to probe how they felt about a healthcare company that actually cared about their well-being. They said they would welcome such a brand with open arms.

In the months and years that followed KP established a number of strategic initiatives that enabled it to stop treating patients like most health care providers and insurers — as profit centers. It invested heavily in wellness education programs to prevent obesity and diabetes, intervention programs to reduce the risk of a second stroke, weekend produce markets around its hospitals and advertising that championed healthy living in clever ways that turned the industry on its head. In short, KP wished its members well, for them to thrive. The impact of the repositioning on 160,000 doctors, nurses and employees was profound, inspiring them to once again make KP it one of the most innovative and trusted healthcare delivery systems in the world.

But it wasn’t all easy.

Internal politics can be brutal when brand repositioning impacts entrenched behaviors and relationships. At the beginning of the project, KP’s PR firm tried to convince leadership that the work wasn’t necessary, that any insights needed already existed in available industry research. Fortunately, KP’s VP of Brand, Debbie Cantu, and Chief Marketing Officer, Christine Paige, had the full support of CEO Bernard Tyson, then its COO, to continue the work undeterred. Had we confined ourselves to the same data every other healthcare company had, if we had breathed the same clinical vapors, I doubt KP could have ever made the turn.

One of KP’s brand initiatives — to become a better brand storyteller inside and outside the company with a voice and language distinct from the industry — led to the award-winning “Thrive” campaign developed by advertising agency Campbell-Ewald. The first print ad, fifteen years ago, served as a brand manifesto with a clear message to the public — and the industry — that not all healthcare companies place profit before purpose. This message is as relevant today as it was then.

There’s never been a more important time to strengthen your brand purpose, to prepare for transparency, craft a shared vision, and create a strong collective conscience that can get you there. Good luck.