Power of Purpose: 4 Ways Leading Brands Deliver Social Impact

The best brands aspire to go beyond delivering great value for consumers — they want to stand for something more. Yet, many struggle to connect their work to a greater purpose in an authentic and meaningful way.

At a recent gathering of for-profit and nonprofit leaders at women’s clothier MM.LaFleur in Washington, D.C., we asked panelists and attendees for their advice on creating purpose-driven brands. Here are some of their key takeaways:

Creating a culture of purpose starts with internal values.

Only 41 percent of U.S. employees say they know what their company stands for, but employees, particularly millennials, are “more likely to be engaged in their work when companies promote their purpose,” according to Gallup.

Brands can reinforce a purpose-driven culture by passing it down through leaders, mentors, and colleagues as they help one another in their work, said Rebecca Pratt, senior director of communications at Capital One. Those experiences set an example. Employees then feel compelled to give back to others in the same way.

For some companies, the drive to be involved in purpose-driven work may originate in their company’s DNA. ”We were founded by a pharmacist who created a cereal for malnourished infants,” said Lisa Gibby, vice president of corporate communications at Nestlé in the U.S. She said that original mission still shapes the company’s attitudes. The company even has a term for this supportive culture — Nestlé Nice.

But many companies also have more tactical programs in place. For example, in today’s always-on social environment, 55 percent of employees say they share information about work on social platforms. Capital One recognized this impulse in their employees and created “social associates,” said Pratt. These associates are employees who create positive messages about Capital One’s work that their team can share on personal social channels.

For large companies, aligning on this type of messaging can be challenging, but important. “Nestlé is eight different companies, and we need consensus across all eight,” said Gibby on communicating values. Agreeing on a message is an evolving process, she said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Organizations that are crafting their own cultural guidelines should consider the challenges that other companies have faced. “There are three tensions that have emerged from our talks with companies that are working to create purpose-driven brands,” said Anita Sharma, senior director of research at Atlantic Media Strategies. The first is how to determine how and when your CEO should speak out; the second is how to prioritize the values that guide your social impact strategy; and the third is how to make sure your company’s activities directly relate to your business.

Focus your goals to increase “return on impact.”

Many organizations struggle with finding the right opportunities to engage. “As a company, Capital One made the transition from credit cards to banks to technology, but along the way, we realized that we couldn’t be everything to everybody.” said Pratt. Those transitions shaped their social impact goals. “When we started Future Edge, we made a five-year commitment to communities. We decided to focus on where the jobs of the future are going … and how we can help communities find the skills that will make them successful.”

Nestlé also has linked their goals to their mission. “We take a ‘Swiss-like’ approach, focusing our mission on enhancing quality of life,” said Gibby. “We do that through three key buckets: health and wellness, community, and the planet and environment.”

That focus also makes it easier to make the business case for social impact, she says.

Communicate social impact efforts year-round. Don’t just focus on big success stories.

Campaign launches and big advocacy wins are easy stories to tell, but increasingly companies are learning to tell the work of their social impact throughout the lifecycle of a project.

“A lot of private companies are doing tremendous good for the world and they’re starting to communicate about it in a very thoughtful way and a very strategic way,” said Jill Schwartz, senior director of communications at the World Wildlife Foundation.

One lesson for Nestlé was to let stakeholders become their voice from time to time.

Partnerships build power.

The power of amplifying one another’s stories benefits the nonprofit and the for-profit groups in social impact partnerships. “We are tremendously grateful for companies like MM.LaFleur who take time to build a relationship, a long-lasting relationship, to elevate our mission. It’s not just about giving us resources … by partnering with incredible brands who have a different audience and reach, it opens up our ability to communicate with even more women,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, co-founder and CEO of She Should Run.

Showing how you can maximize that return on impact is a powerful tool for building collaborations with nonprofits and foundations. “We all have a business or an organization we care about. We all live in a world that we care about. So how do we combine all of those so that we are still making the best partnerships for the customers or the members that we serve?” said Clare Bresnahan, executive director of She Should Run.

Nonprofit organizations are looking for brands with a demonstrated investment in making change. “As we’re looking into the landscape, we look for organizations who really understand that status quo is not OK, that there’s work to be done, and that they feel that they have a voice,” Cutraro said.

It’s also important for businesses to make a connection to the community they work in. “There’s a broad set of issues that affect everyone in a neighborhood that employers have an interest in, nonprofits have an interest in, and for-profits have an interest in,” said Jessica Donze Black, vice president of community health at the American Heart Association. “What we find in terms of community impact is that the more people we have at the table, including those members of the community who have that genuine voice, the more likely we are to be successful.”

One of our goals at Atlantic Media Strategies is to help organizations communicate for social good. Learn more about our innovative digital strategies, sign up for our weekly newsletter, and get in touch with us on Twitter.