The Challenge of Activating Purpose

May 6, 2021

By Ken Beaulieu

PM Images/Getty Images

As more companies look to make a larger impact on society through purpose-driven strategies, they would be wise to heed to the warning of Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer at Ally Financial: “While the potential of brand purpose is game-changing, it’s also a minefield if you get it wrong.”

Indeed, bringing a purpose program to life across an organization can be a monumental challenge, no matter how seamless the most purposeful brands make it look. The multidimensional process does not come with an end date, nor can it be automated by some fancy piece of software. Further, it cannot be delegated to a few interested individuals or be designed to impact one specific part of the business or a specific audience.

Acting on an authentic and well-aligned purpose is an all-in proposition, from the CEO on down, and it must be deeply embedded into the culture and core to the entire business operation and experience. But even the best laid plans often get sidetracked when purpose is not made a priority. A study by the strategic brand consultancy BrandPie found that while 80 percent of purpose-led CEOs agree that business leaders need to be more focused on long-term value creation rather than short-term profit delivery, only 28 percent are integrating purpose into their decision-making and strategy.

This is a chronic issue, regardless of industry or business sector. In the B2B space, 86 percent of companies said they embrace purpose as important to growth, but only 24 percent said they embed purpose in their business to the point of influencing innovation, operations, and their engagement with society, according to a study by the ANA, Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, and the Harris Poll.

There is a litany of factors that hinder businesses from fully integrating purpose. They run the gamut from lack of C-suite involvement to failing to make purpose a business strategy to mistaking corporate values for purpose to the inability to measure success.

But successfully activating purpose can have brand-altering consequences. A new study by the global communications agency Porter Novelli found that when a brand leads with purpose, it changes the entire perception of the company with consumers. Not only are they more trusting of and loyal to a brand, but they also often associate it with words like “caring,” “charitable,” “ethical,” “responsible,” and “transparent.” That emotional connection runs deep: 78 percent of consumers are more likely to remember a company with a strong purpose and 71 percent would purchase from a purpose-driven company over the alternative, when cost and quality are equal.

While there is no standard approach to activating purpose, a new playbook from the ANA Center for Brand Purpose, Activating a Purpose Program, provides guidance from a range of chief marketers and industry experts on how to drive and participate in the purpose process, make purpose a priority, and ensure purpose-led initiatives endure.

With contributions from leaders at Johnson & Johnson, Orvis Company, Ally Financial, Mars Petcare, Caterpillar, and other companies, the five-chapter playbook offers many valuable lessons, including:

  • One of the biggest mistakes any organization can make when looking to infuse purpose into its narrative is to assume it’s only a marketing initiative. If the first time that sales or HR hears about company purpose is during the rollout, there is a significant problem.
  • Company culture plays a significant role in driving purpose. Perhaps more specifically, purpose’s strength is that it embodies in just a few words the essence of culture.
  • Ask employees what matters to them. Their stories tell key truths about the company and their expectations of a changing world, as well as their personal desires to succeed within an organization, make a difference, and even leave some legacy.
  • Involving customers in the purpose process is important. It allows brands to build stronger customer relationships by providing opportunities for meaningful contributions that matter.
  • When purpose-led, an organization has a big opportunity to leverage its purpose in a way that lasts a lifetime.
  • While marketers must consider the metrics behind their campaigns, the story is what will drive recommendations and brand loyalty. In the long run, it produces a brand that endures purposefully.

Consider Johnson & Johnson. The 135-year-old company recently updated its brand purpose “to change the trajectory of health for all humanity,” said Sarah Colamarino, VP of corporate equity. The development of a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine is one way the company is delivering on its purpose. But as J&J and other companies are learning, to varying degrees of success, becoming purposeful is a journey, not a sprint.

“We have spent 18 months integrating this idea into our organization,” Colamarino related in Activating a Purpose Program. “We have had to re-orient people’s mindsets, which is a difficult task.”


You must be logged in to submit a comment.