By Matthew Schwartz
Brand purpose has been creeping to the core for the past few years. However, within the past 18 months, amid a pandemic, racial reckonings, and a series of historic floods and wildfires, brand purpose has taken on a greater sense of urgency.
As stakeholder capitalism goes mainstream, a growing number of companies are hiring chief purpose officers (CPOs) to clarify and define their brand purpose.
In the past year alone, companies such as Cisco, Hasbro, and Vera Bradley have appointed chief purpose officers.
The rise of the CPO presents CMOs with a new opportunity (or dilemma) to demonstrate their value. As CPOs cultivate their company's brand purpose (generally defined as what a company stands for beyond making money), CMOs will be tasked with bringing it to life. However, to communicate brand purpose to a disparate number of audiences, CMOs must take the long view and cultivate ties with other business units if they are to sustain the message and not slip into ad-mode.
Working in concert with CPOs, chief marketers can embed brand purpose into the company and make sure employees are on board. Perhaps more important, CMOs can guard against so-called "trust-washing" — when companies exploit societal issues like climate change or global hunger only to gain market share.
"The best advice you can give your leadership is not to try to get on the bandwagon and just talk about purpose, but [to] actually do something," says Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, who is in the process of creating a monitoring system for brand purpose. "Because the backlash from that is going to be horrifying. Corporations are going to pay a heavy price if they're saying one thing and doing another."
Joined at the Hip
Kwasi Mitchell took charge as chief purpose officer at ANA member Deloitte last December, after serving as diversity, equity, and inclusion leader and the pro bono and social impact lead for Deloitte's consulting practice.
Mitchell says he meets weekly with Suzanne Kounkel, U.S. CMO at Deloitte, to discuss the most effective ways to connect the company's marketing efforts with Deloitte's brand purpose: "We are here to create trust and confidence in a more equitable society."
"For B2C brands, the CMO and CPO being tied at the hip is critical," Mitchell says. "There's going to be immediate and resounding reaction from customers if there's a disparity between what you're saying internally and your actions, in comparison to what you're projecting externally."
Kounkel says that she and Mitchell share a dual role. "Kwasi spends his time taking the [brand] purpose, codifying it, reinforcing it, and making choices about priorities," she says. "Then I'm using the power of our organization to make sure that it's well communicated, well understood, and the stories we choose to tell reinforce our purpose. It's a good marriage of our superpowers."
Deloitte focuses on several areas to demonstrate its purpose, including education, sustainability, workforce development, and pro-bono and skills-based volunteering, and has rolled out a slew of programs recently to support the effort.
This past June, for example, Deloitte launched Making Accounting Diverse and Equitable, or MADE, a $75 million commitment to expand racial and ethnic diversity throughout the accounting profession. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Deloitte transformed its annual Impact Day into Impact Every Day, a year-round commitment among Deloitte's employees volunteering on behalf of more than 100 nonprofits nationwide, ranging from the International African American Museum to the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
"The CMO often is the orchestrator of purpose efforts, given the connection to the customer and the leadership around experiences. But for purpose to be true it needs to be a unified architecture," Mitchell says. "It needs to be on the minds of all executives, not just the CMO. Purpose is interpreted through your products, go-to-market [strategy], employee experience, and supply chain."
Purpose is the centerpiece of Deloitte's messaging strategy, says Kounkel, adding: "Purpose should be the lens through which you view the work, not the outcome of the work. A gut check for external work is to make sure it, too, is serving the outcomes your purpose is trying to achieve rather than trying to get 'credit' for the purpose."
The Path Forward
While brand purpose is commanding more attention in the boardroom, there's a disconnect with the public. Although most consumers (94 percent) agree companies should have a strong purpose, only 37 percent believe companies actually do, according to a 2020 study released by Zeno Group.
The study, based on the responses from 8,000 consumers across eight global markets, found that when people think a brand has strong purpose, they are four times more likely to purchase from the brand. Consumers are four times more likely to trust the company.
"Purpose is very top-of-mind right now, and so companies are trying to figure out whether a chief purpose officer is the best path to get to clear purpose," says Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer at ANA member Ally, whose brand purpose is, "Be a relentless ally that always does right."
Brimmer is not convinced hiring a CPO is necessary. "My concern would be that it's a very duplicative role," she says. "The CMO is the one who should be working across the organization to make sure that [she has] got a fine point on purpose and then figuring out the best way to articulate that message, in what medium and frequency, and how that should be carried through the organization."
She adds, "The stumbling blocks could be a CPO working in a silo and trying to come up with a purpose that isn't either consistent with what's believable about the company, executable, or borne out of why the brand exists, and then the CMO feeling like she's got to marry the purpose with the narrative, and [it's] something that becomes inauthentic."
Asked if she considered the expanding number of C-level titles a threat to CMOs, Brimmer says: "The role of the CMO is going to evolve on a continual basis. Within some organizations, it could be lessened or truncated, in other organizations many CMOs may take on more things, like revenue or purpose."
Collaboration Is Key
"Marketing has to look at the expanding number of stakeholders and take away that notion of 'I'm just trying to sell something' to 'I'm trying to solve something,' and the solve-something is what purpose stands for," says Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose and inclusion officer at ANA member PwC US.
J. C. Lapierre, U.S. chief strategy and communications officer at PwC, adds, "We get to be the stewards, ambassadors, and storytellers for the purpose, and truly put that into the fabric of everything that we do, because we want our people and our clients to tell our story, and [Shannon and I] have to work together in order for that to happen."
In fact, according to Lapierre, collaboration is at the heart of how PwC effectively communicates its brand purpose, which is "to build trust in society and solve important problems." In addition to working closely with Schuyler on the big picture, Lapierre works in unison with the firm's two major segments — Trust Solutions and Customer Solutions — and several business areas that support them, such as environmental, purpose and inclusion, and HR.
In June, for instance, PwC launched the New Equation, an overarching business strategy focused on helping clients as they work to build trust and sustained business outcomes. PwC also is making a three-year, $300 million commitment to embed its brand purpose throughout the organization. The effort includes two separate programs: Access Your Potential, a $125 million investment to support 25,000 Black and Latinx college students to prepare for and start their careers, and the Trust Leadership Institute, which will provide 10,000-plus C-level executives and boardroom members with the tools to build a culture of transparency and ethical decision-making, among other areas.
Lapierre says PwC views purpose-related marketing in two categories. "First, our firmwide efforts that are all about telling PwC's story. For example, [in early October] we share our annual purpose report," she says. "Second, we tie our purpose to our commercial objectives via traditional campaigns. For example, how we connect that purpose report to sales enablement, so our consulting practice can help to guide our clients along their own purpose journeys."
She adds, "When marketers are clear about their intent, they can more effectively strategize and execute, while not coming off as tone-deaf or self-promotional. One of the best ways that we do this is in the form of PwC case studies, where we can achieve both objectives."
Shepherding the various elements that make up brand purpose could be a real boon for marketers. "It can galvanize the investments that are made in a much more strategic way than currently happens in the one-offs, with 'fund this, fund that,'" Schuyler says. "There's an incredible opportunity for marketing roles to pivot into something that feels more human."