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The Power Of Purpose

Liz Carson

Empty two lane highway running through mountains

So, who is talking about purpose-driven companies? Apparently, everyone. This morning I searched on this term, and 162,000,000 results came up. That’s a lot of purpose before any caffeine.

While marketing can jump on the bandwagon (remember “authentic”?), there’s a reason why purpose is on the minds of CEOs today. According to Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, people don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it. This makes sense. Without a clear why companies are adrift in a sea of sameness and are forced to differentiate with features or worse, prices. The WHY is the reason we care.

Yet, value-led organizations are not new. Johnson & Johnson’s 1943 credo clearly calls out their guiding ideals. Purpose-driven marketing is also not an entirely fresh concept (back in the day; we called it cause marketing). So, what’s changed?

Trust + Purpose

Some could argue that trust is harder to earn today.

When I was growing up, we didn’t know how McDonald’s sourced their food, or who made our Calvins. That’s all changed today. Customers are not just buyers anymore. These days, consumers are hyper-connected and engaged – and most importantly – have platforms to share their opinions. This power allows them to influence others, co-create and yes, hold companies accountable.

Canadians also don’t buy only on functional benefits and price anymore. Today, they evaluate how companies act and connect with their values. This is especially true of Gen Z – the new cohort entering the workforce – who care deeply about purpose and relationships that go beyond transactions. If genuine, trust can be built on this value-matching.

This aligns with our Proof Trust Index that does a yearly deep dive with all Canadians on the importance of trust: who sways us, how we buy, and where we put our trust.

While for the first time in four years, trust by the public in all sizes of businesses has declined (45% to 39%), certain trust builders have emerged. For example, how a company does things has become as important as what it does in this age of transparency. Case in point, more than six out of 10 Canadians say relating to the values of a company is key to winning their trust. So, organizations that align with their audience’s values and back it up with action can build on this sense of community.

Right Way + Wrong Way

But you can’t fake the real thing. Even with good intentions, it is easy for organizations to get purpose wrong. Consumers can see through ‘feel good’ campaigns that lack substance. An opinion Unilever CEO, Alan Jope agrees with when he called out brands claiming to stand for a purpose without delivering it.

When you think of brands getting it right, Patagonia tops the list. Their mission is clear – we’re in the business to save our home planet. A statement that Patagonia backs with engagement, as seen recently when they closed operations for Global Climate Strike. One of their most well-known actions is the ‘We’re giving our $10 million tax cut back to the planet’ announcement. Yup. I was one of the 34+ million people who liked that tweet.

Return on Purpose 

There’s no denying that successful businesses need to be profitable. Yet, a supportive corporate culture and giving back to local communities are becoming increasingly important.

This trend to purpose is also great for public relations professionals. Our management function is to understand audiences and communities and find common cause with our corporate clients or employers. The Public Relations Society of America has said for years that the public relations profession brings private and public policies into harmony.

When organizations live with purpose and communicate it clearly, consumers become their enthusiastic advocates. And without a doubt, purpose also attracts and retains talent. After all, who doesn’t want to work at an organization that aligns with their values and gives back to the world? Purpose can also be profitable. When companies live up to their mission, buyers will reward them with their attention and dollars. Recently, the Business Roundtable – an association of CEOs of American’s largest companies – endorsed this belief with their shared statement that corporations should no longer value shareholder profit above all.

So, are purpose-led companies a trend or just the right way to do business? I say the latter.