A few months ago, I was speaking to a MBA class about brand purpose. One of the students raised their hand with an observation/question: Can’t companies just say they have purpose?
The question sparked a great discussion about brands, like Pepsi and Gillette, who made headlines for misguided leaps into social issues, and how companies, like TOMS and Patagonia, had internalized their commitments to social issues. As the conversation went on, I could see them distinguishing between purpose marketing and alignment.
Lately, I’ve noticed as the purpose movement grows and companies face higher expectations to address social issues, some businesses are still looking at these things as a marketing or PR problem. They’re not.
Brand purpose is a business initiative, not a marketing initiative.
This was the point I was trying to hit home with the MBA students. It’s not up to marketing to define and own your brand’s purpose. Marketing plays a vital role in the brand purpose framework. We need marketing to help craft stories, build consistency and fluency and engage stakeholders.
But, for purpose to thrive and have a lasting impact, it should be viewed as a business initiative, not a marketing initiative.
Brand purpose is shaped by the experiences, stories and priorities of its top leaders, particularly the CEO/founder. To be fully realized and woven through an organization, it also should be embodied, prioritized and championed by the organization’s leaders.
I learned recently there’s a growing case for board leadership to guide brand purpose. According to a recent study from the London Business School, respondents overwhelmingly feel that the board of directors should be responsible for defining the company’s purpose, followed by the senior management team, including the CEO.
I think this is because shareholders are recognizing that in order to be materially relevant, these discussions need to start at the top and leaders need to be held accountable. The survey went on to ask why they think it’s important to define purpose. Overwhelmingly, 93% believe purpose is needed to set a long-term business strategy that creates value.
Marketing plays a vital role in shaping your brand story and connecting your organization to its audiences. Ultimately, however, it is up to the company’s leadership team to work collectively to:
a) craft a meaningful and honest statement of purpose,
b) align their people, processes and policies around their purpose, and
c) hold themselves and the organization accountable to it.
Finally, I think it’s also important to apply this lens to how we address social issues. If not, we may up in the same place asking the same question: Can’t businesses just say they’re anti-racist?
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