In 2020 the world went home. More precisely, the world went completely and irrevocably online. It was a good time to be Mark Zuckerberg and a bad time to be a street vendor. Social media influence increased, and the web was not just the place to be—as it had been a very long while—but the only place to be.
In 2021 popular cosmetics retailer Lush stepped away from all social media platforms. Was this some miscalculated publicity stunt or outright corporate suicide? No, it was simple adherence to the principles held at the company’s core—to its purpose. “I’ve spent all my life avoiding putting harmful ingredients in my products,” wrote CEO Mark Constantine. “There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I’m not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it’s time to take it out of the mix.”
The immediate economic downsides to such a decision are precisely what makes the story so remarkable—and there are plenty more stories like it. It conveys something more than the “mission statement” on yet another “About Us” page. It’s putting your money where your mouth is when it hurts.
Here’s the well-known secret: authenticity breeds equity. That is why their abandonment of social media was not a poor business decision, but an excellent one. Stakeholders are no longer willing to take purpose at face value, and hopping on bandwagons hardly even counts as an afterthought. But when a company is willing to really bite the bullet, to swim against the current to uphold what they believe in, that’s integrity people won’t forget.
That’s brand equity that becomes brand loyalty when the economy recedes, and consumers become more price sensitive—which is precisely where we find ourselves today. If all that sounds sentimentalist, here’s a number: 66 percent of Americans will switch from a familiar brand to a new one solely based on the latter’s sense of purpose. That’s good business.
How to Cultivate Brand Purpose
Below is a brief overview of the four basic principles that business leaders must establish to cultivate purpose that will ballast their brands for years and decades to come.
1. Don’t fake it
It is not advisable to hand-select an attractive “cause” from the embarrassment of choices and slap it atop your brand. The purpose must lay at the core of the company. Everything the company says and does must be aligned with and directed toward that purpose. Oftentimes the best way to identify that purpose is not making up a new one but rediscovering the reason for the brand’s existence in the first place.
What problem was it created to solve? Why? Doing thorough research on a company’s birth will usually indicate an inherent purpose, even if it has since strayed therefrom. Once identified, the purpose must resume its position as the beating heart. Subsequent decisions should navigate not around it but through it. It’s the driving force behind every movement.
2. Bite the bullet
In times such as these, when recession seems imminent and the future uncertain, business leaders are hard-pressed to sacrifice extraneous agendas in favor of those more vital to the survival of the company. Terminating social-media marketing or donating proceeds to charity as expressions of the company’s core values seem to fall in the former category and are wont to get axed. But recall that purpose is the center and lifeblood of a business, not an appendage.
Compromising on values when times get rough is a surefire way to undermine any investments that have hitherto been deposited into either consumer trust or employee buy-in. When, however, a company refuses to budge even in the face of uncertainty, it purchases loyalty that will weather the deepest kind of plunge.
3. Recruit with purpose
Few things are so vital to a company’s success as a shared vision within its community. A misaligned, undetermined employee is little more than a cog, and he or she will very much feel like one. Instead, an employee who truly believes in the purpose of the business, and whose personal values are in common with the whole, is a force invested in making the goals of the company a reality. It is vital, therefore, that companies incorporate statements of purpose in every step of the recruiting process, building a team that is fundamentally united around it.
4. Avoid the bandwagon
With purpose in place and spirits high, the urge to expand is natural. In fact, not jumping on every new cause, political trend, or viral story as a force for good invokes a fear of missing out—all the other companies are doing it, after all.
Remember: purpose must be authentic. No company has a scope broad enough to fit all the world’s issues, and chasing the vogue will communicate ulterior motives. It is advisable to stick with the values that warrant the brand’s existence in the first place. The company has authority in that fight precisely because it is and has always been at its forefront.
What’s your purpose?
Brand purpose is rumored to be dying under the weight of a struggling market; no one has time for antics anymore. It is more sensible, however, to say that no one ought to have time for anything else. When the going gets rough, what will separate your brand from the next? Pricing? In lieu of loyalty, yes. But when customers, shareholders, and employees can see unrelenting purpose in the very makeup of your company, trust will hold firm when everything else gives.
Rich DePencier, Area Managing Partner & CMO at Chief Outsiders, works with mid-size to enterprise-level CEOs & their teams to create disruptive multichannel growth plans, new product launches, and innovative sales and marketing approaches.
Philippe Harousseau, CMO at Chief Outsiders, works with CEOs at consumer product companies to accelerate growth through disruptive innovation and campaigns and unlocking the power of purpose.
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