Purpose in a Perfect Storm

August 25, 2020

By MaryLee Sachs

Natali Snailcat/Shutterstock.com

There is no doubt that purpose will be more important than ever having been hit by unprecedented change this year. Not just brand purpose. Not just a purpose created by the marketing department. But rather enterprise-wide purpose that guides an organization and gets translated into the marketing for its brands, that appeals to and attracts talent at all levels, and that ladders up to how the organization behaves in its actions and reactions.

The marketing community has been talking about purpose for some time now and putting it to good use. Of course the definition of purpose varies considerably — from a simple idea of social responsibility to cause-related activism and environmental sustainability. A good rule of thumb is Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ definition of purpose from their book Built to Last: “Purpose is the set of fundamental reasons for a company’s existence beyond just making money”.

There is no right or wrong position, but the more central purpose becomes as an organizing idea for the whole business, the more impact it has on decision-making, sustainable business practices and long-term value creation.

Therein lies the opportunity for leading marketers to work with their CEOs and peers in the leadership team to champion purpose across the entire enterprise, because organizations that use purpose as a north star have been able to navigate more effectively and with increased agility through the current turmoil.

It doesn’t feel like there will be any ‘winners’ coming out of the pandemic, but there are exemplary cases of companies rising to the challenges they face by letting their purpose guide their business. For example:

  • Some have been able to flip the lock-down on its head to create relevant extensions of the business that are practical and purposeful given the market and public’s limitations — such as Airbnb’s “Online Experiences” or Hertz’ Premium Cars “So Great You’ll Never Want to Get Out”.
  • Others have used their organizational purpose to cater to the needs of customers or the public at large to provide something of value given the circumstances — such as GoDaddy’s “Open We Stand” for small businesses or Crocs’ “A Free Pair for Healthcare” program.
  • For others, the pandemic has been an accelerant to transformation — such as King Arthur Flour’s metamorphosis into King Arthur Baking Company with a complement of services for the increasing number of stay-at-home bakers.
  • Some companies were just in the right place at the right time but their purpose helped them to prioritize actions in a way that would provide the most benefit to all their stakeholders — such as The Clorox Company and startup Swimply touted as the Airbnb for swimming pools.

These companies are living their purpose. It’s rooted in their DNA; not something magicked up for the pandemic. And purpose has guided them to be forward-looking, relevant to their stakeholders — both internally and externally, and woven into their culture.

My firm just released the results of our second annual CEO Study on Purpose, and we’ve identified five purpose-types which constitute our Brandpie Purpose Spectrum based on over 10 years of experience and our research across nearly 1,400 CEOs. Most (80 percent) of purpose-led CEOs agree that business leaders today need to be more focused on long-term value creation rather than short-term profit delivery, but only 28 percent of CEOs are integrating purpose into their decision-making and strategy.

The upheaval caused by COVID-19 and political and civil unrest will doubtless cause many business leaders to think more carefully than ever before about a path forward. We all want things to go back to “normal” quickly, but we question what the “new normal” will look like, and we better be able to act with agility whatever the case.

As we emerge from a year of unprecedented change, having a purpose can help to provide a framework or structure from which to chart a course that is inclusive, socially responsible, and differentiating for an organization. Having a purpose can help business leaders navigate the unpredictable world that has become the norm.

I’m already looking forward to our third annual study of CEOs on purpose because I suspect that purpose will have graduated from brand campaigns to becoming more essential for the whole business, to being that ‘license to operate’ that Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, wrote about in his now-infamous letter to investors in 2019.

MaryLee Sachs is the U.S. CEO of Brandpie Inc.

The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

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