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Company Heritage as the Seedbed of Brand Purpose

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For perhaps as long as humans have conducted commerce, the purpose of a company seemed self-evident, being nothing more mysterious than the sale of as many widgets as possible for the greatest possible compensation. More recently, however, many a business has begun to seek out a higher brand purpose, one guided by a polestar positioned higher in the heavens than a simple pursuit of profit. This change on the part of many companies has been motivated, in part, by a genuine desire to do right by the world, but also by an effort to appeal to a younger generation that is more activist in its values than previous ones.

Even for organizations that are principled and well-intentioned, landing on the right brand purpose to adopt is a significant challenge, carrying with it the potentially disastrous risk of coming off as a hapless poseur, or worse, a cynical opportunist trying to lucratively curry favor with earnest consumers.

In a potent edition of the ANA Center for Brand Purpose's Beyond Profit podcast, the solution to this challenge was vividly articulated by Ty Montague, co-founder of and chairman and chief purpose officer at the consultancy Co:Collective and host of the podcast Calling Bullshit. Montague explained that:

"[Purpose] is not a thing that you can make up. It's a thing that you have to excavate. It's an archaeological project in a company where the founder's departed. You have to dig in there and really figure out what was the thing that animated the creation of this organization and really drove it forward and got everybody out of bed and psyched to show up every day."

When based on a company's founding principles and experiences, a brand purpose will seem a harmonious extension of a business' history and confer an ability to speak and act on behalf of an issue with natural authority.

Below are several examples of companies that have determined their brand purposes by turning to their history and founding principles will illuminate what this process can look like.

Patagonia

Many recognize outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia as the leader among companies striving to pursue a purpose-driven approach to business — an approach that, in Patagonia's case, was shaped by its early experiences.

Shortly after opening a store in the Boston area in 1988, Patagonia's employees there began getting sick and having to call out of work. The situation got so bad that eventually the company had to close the store to diagnose and correct the problem. It eventually learned that employees were being sickened by formaldehyde that had been used in the processing of the cotton in many of its clothing products.



Patagonia's director of philosophy, Vincent Stanley, identifies this realization as a turning point in the history of Patagonia, as it convinced the company to adopt organic cotton in its products to avoid the use of chemicals that were harmful to humans and the environment.

Actions such as this reflect Patagonia's commitment to avoid doing any unnecessary ecological harm. More recently, it has expanded on that commitment and has adopted a more proactive mission statement; it now maintains, "We're in business to save our home planet," a claim that it has lived out by pioneering techniques that convert recycled materials into new apparel and by committing 1 percent of its total sales to environmental groups.

Clif Bar

While sustainability serves as the North Star guiding Patagonia's brand purpose, other companies have found other inspirations in their business' heritages. Consider the case of Clif Bar.

The energy-supplement brand had long provided its customers with the fuel necessary to enjoy the outdoors, be that as cyclists, mountain climbers, or what have you. However, inspired by the 2020s heightened concern over justice and equity, the company recognized there were other barriers to enjoying the outdoors besides a lack of the stamina supplied by carbohydrates — those barriers being historical inequalities that withhold access to green spaces from many BIPOC communities.

With an authority conferred by a natural elaboration of its founding purpose, Clif Bar set out to address such inequalities by helping such traditionally disadvantaged groups more fully enjoy the outdoors.

In partnership with tennis star Venus Williams and nonprofit Outdoor Afro, the company has promoted giving and service partnerships with community groups, building opportunities for the disadvantaged to participate in activities that have been inaccessible for economic or social reasons. These partnerships have helped inspire Black connections with and leadership in nature. Working with Outdoor Afro, Clif has also offered Black communities across the country new opportunities to participate in activities such as hiking, paddleboarding, and kayaking with products and gear that it provides.

Degree

As a deodorant manufacturer, Degree might seem to have little natural authority to speak about and act on morally significant issues such as the advancement of equality. After all, its reason for being is nothing more elevated than the prevention of body odor — at least at first glance. Looking a little deeper, the role of its product is to help everyone comfortably pursue an active lifestyle, a mission that has, in recent years, inspired it to consider anew how the "everyone" its brand ostensibly works for could be more fully served. Extrapolating from its expressed mission, Degree recognized a community whose active lifestyles it could valuably support as it aspired to a higher purpose: namely, the differently abled.

Degree Echo Award Video

Realizing that those with impairments to their eyes or arms can face special difficulties in applying deodorant, Degree partnered with that community to design a product that could be more easily used, with features that included:

  • A magnetic cap enabling easier opening and closing for users with limited muscle strength, which also provided auditory confirmation for visually impaired users
  • A larger rollerball to cover more surface area in one swipe, as additional movement is difficult for people with disabilities
  • A hook design for easier handling, as the hook could be hung for opening with one hand
  • An embossed logo for the visually impaired
  • A bottom grip that required limited to no finger movement
  • A refillable design to reduce plastic consumption

More recently, Degree has expanded its effort to advance equality on behalf of the differently abled as part of its mission to help inspire confidence in everyone to move more. This work has included a campaign to promote equal representation of the differently abled among trainers in the fitness world.

To forge this aspiration into action, Degree created a digital hiring site for differently abled trainers, announced it in an open letter to the fitness industry in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, and, as a proof of concept, staged a fully inclusive spin class led by famed Paralympian Blake Leeper outside the windows of leading fitness companies' headquarters.

The Power of Purpose

The examples of Patagonia, Clif Bar, and Degree are instructive. The brand purpose that will be authentic to an organization isn't always obvious, especially for enterprises like a deodorant manufacturer, whose businesses don't seem, at first blush, to ladder up to a high-minded mission. However, companies with a desire to contribute more to the world than the mere maximization of revenue or the simple enrichment of shareholders aren't without recourse. By peering back into their history and by reflecting on their founding principles and on how they might be naturally elaborated upon, they can uncover the purpose that is underwritten by their origins, one already encoded in their existing DNA.


The views and opinions expressed 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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Morgan Strawn

Morgan Strawn is a director of editorial and content development at the ANA, which he joined in 2018. You can email him at mstrawn@ana.net.