While some skeptics argue that purpose is a faddish buzzword, the business case is hard to deny. Kantar Consulting's "Purpose 2020" report, based on data collected from multiple surveys of more than 20,000 marketers and 100 deep-dive interviews, found that purpose-led brands have seen their brand valuation increase by 175 percent over past 12 years, compared to a median growth rate of 86 percent. Edelman's 2018 Earned Brand study, meanwhile, reported that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers around the world make purchases based on what a company stands for, an increase of 13 points since 2017.
How to overcome five critical challenges of activating brand purpose.
Despite the potential payoff, many companies have struggled to bring brand purpose to life within their own walls. A survey conducted by the ANA, in partnership with the Ad Council, found that while 78 percent of marketers said their company has a clearly defined purpose, only 18 percent strongly agreed that it's part of a company-wide business strategy with specific goals. Marketers named a litany of challenges related to bringing a brand purpose to life, including "generating global alignment," "ensuring senior leader reinforcement," "proving value," and "short-termism."
"It's great to say that you should have a purpose, but it's hard to do," admits Leslie Pascaud, EVP of the brand practice at Kantar Consulting. "You need to have a brand purpose if you want to survive and thrive in the future, but in order to do that, you need to really spend the time to make sure that everyone within your organization understands and buys into and can execute against that purpose. Spend more time internally to embed and infuse that purpose before going out to the world."
The ANA reached out to senior marketers from a wide range of companies for ideas and insights into overcoming some of the most common challenges associated with activating brand purpose within an organization.
Challenge 1: Getting Buy-in from the C-suite
More than 90 percent of the marketers surveyed by the ANA agree that senior leadership needs to drive internal buy-in of an organization's brand purpose. Yet for many marketers, getting purpose initiatives funded and prioritized can be a major roadblock. As one survey respondent lamented, "Sometimes leadership is so entrenched in their own silos they can't think conceptually about their company."
One key to success lies in directly involving senior leaders in the development and framing of the purpose, rather than presenting it as a marketing initiative. When the Swedish carmaker Volvo set out to determine its brand purpose — to "bring freedom to move in a personal, sustainable, and safe way" — the company's executive management team met for an offsite meeting.
"We said as a team, how do we make this come together?" says Björn Annwall, SVP of strategy, brand, and retail at Volvo. "We believe in 'co-create to commit,' that if you don't do something together, you don't really stand by it."
Another secret for securing C-suite investment is to lay out a strong business case. When Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communications officer at Deluxe Corp., sought to drive her company toward the "Small Business Revolution," a purpose-driven initiative that shines a spotlight on the importance of small businesses across America, she pointed to how the purpose would help differentiate the brand.
"Every function of the company that touches the brand needs to understand the purpose. Authenticity has to always be there. If you don't live it, people aren't motivated to work on it." — Giuseppina Buonfantino, CMO at Kimberly-Clark
"I kept bringing them back to the fact that all of our competitors were not only outspending us 14 to one, but they were all just talking at small businesses, and nobody was taking the time out and standing alongside small businesses and advocating for them," Brinkman says. "I talked about how this would be a really unique position for us that would help us stand out from the competition, and how it would create advocacy among our customer base in a much richer way than advertising ever can."
Senior leaders may worry that a new brand purpose will derail the company or send it in a radical new direction, so it's important to stay close to an organization's roots and build on what it already does well, says Alicia Tillman, CMO at SAP. Upon joining the company, she learned that its original founders had aspired to help businesses use technology to help the world run better and improve people's lives.
"The pitch I brought to the board was that we needed to look back to the founding of SAP to create a brand narrative, which is really the purpose," Tillman says. "A lot of marketers want to modernize the message and come up with the new shiny object to articulate what we do, but I did the opposite. I said, 'We had a beautiful vision when we were founded, and that needs to serve as the narrative for our business.' And everyone was delighted with that."
Another tried-and-true approach is to hit senior leaders where it counts: in their hearts. Kantar's Pascaud recalls the anecdote of how the brand team behind Dove swayed skeptical senior leaders toward the now-famous "Real Beauty" campaign. "The marketing and agency teams had this deep insight about the fact that girls never felt beautiful, but no one was getting excited about it," she says. "The team decided to go out and interview the wives and daughters of the men who sit on the board and ask them how they felt about themselves. They played a video for the board members showing the most beloved women in their lives talking about how they didn't feel good about how they looked or how some small blemish made them imperfect. That did it."
Key Takeaway: Don't make the mistake of marching into the boardroom and announcing, 'This is our purpose!' Rather, lead a conversation, use data to explain why it matters for the business, enlist other senior leaders as allies, and stay within the bounds of the company's existing strengths and areas of focus. "Internal marketing means you need to know your audience and what's really compelling to them," Pascaud says. "For example, at Shell, they're all about understanding that everything needs to be part of their strategic planning process, so their CMO has baked purpose into their strategic planning. But at each company it will different."
Challenge 2: Aligning Businesses and Functions Around Purpose
Deliberately embedding purpose throughout the business is essential to bringing it to life. However, according to Kantar's Purpose 2020 report, only one in 10 marketing leaders has a corporate purpose statement with any form of societal commitment. "Purpose is too important to sit inside the marketing department," Pascaud says. "It has implications for hiring, particularly if you're in a service business; it has implications for supply chain, R&D, even financial investment decisions."
As with senior leaders, it's important to engage company employees in dialogue around purpose; the more they are involved at the outset, the more they will support it down the road. Consider Emerson. Following a major restructuring, the global technology firm sought to rearticulate its purpose to help overcome the siloed nature of its business. With hundreds of individual brands and segments, the company faced divided loyalties and affinities. Success hinged on getting its more than 75,000 employees worldwide to rally around a shared purpose.
So Emerson surveyed its employees about the best path forward and used this input to develop a set of company values. "We have a lot of engineers, and they are by nature questioners," says Kathy Button Bell, CMO at Emerson. "The fact that the values came from the loin of the business itself was important. We didn't hire an external firm to come in and dictate them."
Emerson also created a global committee that included representatives from both marketing and HR. "Marketing is better at communicating, and HR has the reach within the organization and actually thinks about things differently than we do, which is healthy," Button Bell says. "Anywhere I go in the world, our values are up on the wall. If HR hadn't embraced it, it wouldn't have worked. It changed our culture between HR and marketing forever because we had to work so tightly together."
"The purpose needs to be seen by all associates as endorsed, if not created, at the senior-most levels. The leaders need to come out and introduce it themselves, even if they didn't work on it." — Alex Ho, CMO at American Greetings
Marketers should leverage their expertise in producing inspiring, thought-provoking communications to build awareness across divisions and functions, says Alex Ho, CMO at American Greetings. When he set out to activate the company's purpose — "to make the world a more thoughtful and caring place every single day" — he and his team launched an initiative called a "ThankList," which was a "call to action to consumers to take a moment and think of five people who had the most impact on your life and take a minute to thank them and express gratitude."
Before taking this program to the public, the company brought together 1,600 employees in a room, where senior leaders introduced the campaign and presented an inspiring, well-produced video. "At the end, you could hear a pin drop," Ho says. "It was shock and awe, and then immediate buzz throughout the building, with people saying how proud they were to work for a company like this."
Ho stresses that it was important to have the company's senior leaders involved in the rollout to ensure buy-in across the company. "The purpose needs to be seen by all associates as endorsed, if not created, at the senior-most levels," he says. "The leaders need to come out and introduce it themselves, even if they didn't work on it. And you should have it reinforced through repetition, all the classic marketing tactics of reach and frequency. That needs to happen within the associate walls."
A particularly powerful way to drive home brand purpose is to create opportunities for employees to experience the power of the purpose firsthand. Kimberly-Clark, maker of consumer brands like Kleenex, Kotex, and Huggies, has launched diverse charitable initiatives to support its brand purpose to "lead the world with essentials for a better life." The company encourages employees to get involved in these efforts, whether by making donations to the National Diaper Bank or constructing toilets in underdeveloped communities through its global sanitation initiative called "Toilets Change Lives."
"Kimberly-Clark offices around the world are involved at the local level," says Giuseppina "Giusy" Buonfantino, CMO at Kimberly-Clark. "Toilets Change Lives was initiated by a group of our employees, which speaks to the power of the vision and purpose behind the company … Every function of the company that touches the brand needs to understand the purpose. Authenticity has to always be there. If you don't live it, people aren't motivated to work on it."
Key Takeaway: Create a sense of empowerment by enlisting employees in the development of the purpose, and use the tools of marketing — from focus groups and surveys to integrated, targeted messaging and inspiring experiences — to ensure that every division understands how their work fits into the big picture. And don't make the mistake of assuming that a big, splashy kickoff is all it takes to move a company toward a purpose; instead, the rollout should be framed as the start of a conversation. "The more interesting piece of it is when you ask people what the purpose means to them," Pascaud says. "They need to reinterpret it. Sometimes in the process of reinterpreting it, they'll change it, because the way it was developed by a small core team may not actually resonate for certain parts of the business."
Challenge 3: Ensuring Purpose Guides Business Decision-Making
Brand purpose is not a directive, but an ethos that should guide decision-making across the organization, from how products are sourced and designed to what mergers and acquisitions a company chooses to pursue.
As part of the activation process, company leaders should scrutinize the organization's practices and behaviors to ensure alignment with its purpose. For example, Volvo used to hold twice-annual meetings for about 100 of the highest-ranked people in the company. But when the company started to think deeply about its purpose, they realized the meetings needed a new approach.
"It had become kind of an officers' club," Volvo's Annwall says. "We realized that it probably was not the best way to drive our company forward, so we changed that into what we call 'strategic dialogues.' Now we invite the 100 people in the company, regardless of hierarchy, who are most relevant to drive a topic forward."
Volvo has made a variety of changes to its operations as a result of its purpose initiative, and has even reorganized its businesses around the different facets of its purpose. To support the "sustainable" part of the equation, the company has created opportunities to highlight and start dialogues about environmental issues through activities like having its local teams to clean up plastic from beaches. It has also made a business decision to invest in engineering cars with a higher percentage of recycled plastic.
"[The purpose] becomes the organizing framework for running the company," Annwall says. "I would love to say we had a grand plan, but we have the purpose of sustainability and then the different parts start to come together. But that's the essence of purpose-based. It's not a top-down grand plan, but you get more grassroots ideas coming from the same theme, and then great things come together."
Companies can also use purpose as a filter for decisions around business partnerships. For example, National Geographic falls back on its purpose when considering whether to develop branded content for companies that seek to piggyback off the publisher's environmental bona fides (not to mention its 90 million Instagram followers). When Heineken approached National Geographic to develop branded content, the project got the green light because the story involved searching for a new kind of yeast in Patagonia.
"We had some conversations around, is the story they're telling really authentic?" recalls Jill Cress, CMO at National Geographic. "The [partner] brand has to be really aligned to our values. When we can unearth those concentric circles between why National Geographic exists and why a brand exists, that's when we can create really cool, compelling marketing that doesn't feel like greenwashing."
Key Takeaway: An effective brand purpose can be a boon to a company's leaders as it provides clarity and direction around decisions big and small; the more employees understand the purpose, the more they can be entrusted to do the right thing. "We are moving away from a traditional command-and-control, hierarchical way of leading into a more purpose-based leadership, where you give a broader mandate to people to drive things, and more empowerment across the organization," Volvo's Annwall says. "It's really important that you have this nucleus of the purpose that holds it together; otherwise it can very quickly drift apart."
Challenge 4: Ensuring Consistent Messaging Across Touchpoints
One of the key challenges in activating brand purpose is creating an organizational culture where everyone — whether it's the sales team, customer service representatives, or factory workers — understands and communicates the purpose in a consistent way. To achieve this consistency requires continual reinforcement and support.
A model for this is Kaiser Permanente, a not-for-profit integrated health care delivery organization. Although its mission is "to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve," the company is best known for a robust marketing strategy centered around a single word: Thrive.
"We are moving away from a traditional command-and-control, hierarchical way of leading into a more purpose-based leadership, where you give a broader mandate to people to drive things, and more empowerment across the organization." — Björn Annwall, SVP of strategy, brand, and retail at Volvo
"Our mission statement has been really consistent [for the past 73 years], but it's since the launch of the 'Thrive' campaign that we've found the most successful language and approach to use in conveying that," says Christine Paige, chief marketing executive at Kaiser Permanente. "Key to that is not only advertising, but consistently representing the brand through our member communications, the way we talk to our customers, and how we operate internally."
The organizational culture at Kaiser Permanente provides constant reminders to employees about what the company stands for. "When we have a lunch, you'll notice the absence of cookies and the presence of fruit, and we only work with vendors that can provide the kinds of healthy menus we can support," Paige says. "People are regularly encouraged to have walking meetings, and when we have longer meetings, we include 'Thrive breaks,' when we'll stop in the middle and either do meditation or stretching. Many of our computers have automated Thrive breaks that will come up and remind people to pause, and because we have a saying that 'sitting is the new smoking,' a lot of people have variable work stations. It's a pretty thorough branding of the employee experience."
The health-focused message that drives the Thrive culture provides a clear framework for messaging across Kaiser Permanente's different touchpoints, both internal and external. Yet Paige stresses that marketing does not drive the brand purpose but takes its lead from it.
"It's not about us teaching the clinicians; it's us learning from the people who are delivering care," she says. "You really have to drive this through everything you do. It has to feel that way to employees, and it has to be reflected in all your communications, not just your big brand campaigns. Even in an organization that is very purpose-driven, people can get very heads down in their work. It's good to have strategies that help people reconnect with the brand and the purpose."
Key Takeaway: Work with HR and other divisions to brainstorm how the company can reinforce the brand purpose throughout the internal culture. For example, Kimberly-Clark has a practice of starting meetings with the recognition of employees who "are living out the actions and qualities that support our promise," according to Buonfantino. And at American Greetings, the main entrance to the company's headquarters is emblazoned with the brand purpose so that associates see the words as they come and go to work. "We continually reinforce it with internal programs," Ho says. "We have it on the backs of business cards. We ask people to tell their own stories about making the world more thoughtful and caring. Walking the talk, having it at the top of product development briefs and creative briefs, all of that is to stay consistent to make sure we all know it and live it."
Challenge 5: Measuring Success Around Brand Purpose
Marketers are used to tracking a wide range of metrics related to their brands, but when it comes to purpose, finding the right figures to track can be tricky. "Whenever you're trying to pitch something that's more purpose-focused, your board looks at it and says, 'Great, but how are we going to be able to measure this?'" says Deluxe's Brinkman. "It can be easy to get distracted by the numbers, the quarterly outlook. It's really important to continue to stay true to the authenticity of the purpose work, and make sure it's not just a campaign, but something that's integrated throughout the company … There's never a goal line. You have to always be continually working on bringing the purpose to life internally."
"If every company was … using their platform to advocate for something greater than just selling something, imagine what kind of world it would be."— Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communications officer at Deluxe Corp.
Brinkman suggests that marketers work with other senior leaders to measure the influence of the purpose in their own divisions, in part to fend off the perception that the purpose is the responsibility of marketing. "You can create great brand affinity and love, which creates consideration and brings in a potential new customer base, but you've also got to be competing on product, price, and experience," Brinkman says. "I reminded [the board of Deluxe], 'Let's put the right measurement at each of those stages of the marketing funnel.' You can't put everything on the shoulders of the brand work."
Other marketers agree that it's a mistake to think about measuring purpose, per se. "You can measure a million things, but you can't measure the basic brand purpose; that's something at a higher level," Volvo's Annwall says. "It's something that is much more complex and it will always be belittling the purpose if you try to put it in measurement. I measure brand strength, I measure market share, I measure profitability, and I measure meaningful relationships with consumers. But my brand purpose is what will drive all of that."
Because a compelling brand purpose can play an important role in attracting and retaining employees, it's also important to put in place measures around employee engagement, and to work with HR to determine the impact on turnover, recruitment, and retention.
"Companies that are recognized by their own employees as having a strong purpose have a three-times higher retention rate than other companies," Pascaud says. "You need to measure internal engagement and belief in the purpose, and you need to measure whether it's recognized by consumers, whether they understand it, and whether it speaks to them. And there need to be specific KPIs about the way you do business: Is the purpose showing up in your products and services, and how you interact with consumers?"
Key Takeaway: In the end, the brand purpose has to be good for the business, so it's important to track metrics like profit and growth as purpose is brought to life. But don't fall into the trap of short-term thinking, and be willing to stand by the long-term aspiration of what the company stands for. "One of your biggest jobs as a CMO who has their foot firmly planted in the purpose camp is truly protecting the work," Brinkman says. "There's always going to be scrutiny around measurement and impact. It takes bravery. You have to really want to fight the good fight, and you have to believe that that is going to be a better and more authentic way to connect with your customers. CMOs have a lot of opportunity to make a huge difference in the world, when you think about the giant megaphone that is advertising and communication. If every company was behaving this way and using their platform to advocate for something greater than just selling something, imagine what kind of world it would be."
By Chuck Kapelke