Want to Build a Purpose-Driven Brand?
22 Questions to Ask Your Brand, Your Organization and Your Leaders
By Stephen Dupont, APR
Do you feel your brand is called to a higher purpose?
Do you know where your brand stands on important issues of the day?
How worried is your brand at upsetting your customer base?
When faced with hot-button cultural, environmental, political or social issues, many brands choose to remain neutral – or even silent.
But in today’s competitive landscape, some brands are leaning into their purpose and taking public stances on not just industry issues, but politically charged issues.
And, in the face of a seismic event, they’re willing to face into the headwinds and do the right thing, profits be damned, because what matters most is people – they’re people, their vendors, their customers, and their neighbors.
For those that do, the reason is simple — according to management consulting firm Accenture, 63 percent of American consumers prefer to purchase products and services from purpose-driven companies.
However, the real question may be: “Can a brand afford not to be purpose driven?” A study by Kantar Consulting, as reported in Marketing Dive, found that “brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175 percent over the past 12 years compared to the median growth rate of 86 percent.”
People in marketing and communications have a desire to find purpose in work and in the brand experiences we offer customers and other stakeholders. However, when it comes to brands and their brand owners (companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and public institutions such as universities and hospitals), when the word “purpose” is raised we usually try to satisfy it through such activities as donations, community affairs programs or employee volunteer opportunities.
Being a good corporate citizen and doing good things, such as donating to a cause, is not the same as building a purpose-driven brand.
Brands, at their most basic, enable a brand owner to communicate the identity and a unique reason why a consumer should buy a product or service, or support a cause or candidate.
In a way, understanding and supporting the purpose of a brand is similar to trusting a consumer brand’s experience. Consumers who trust a brand through an experience consistently delivered are loyal to that brand. For example, when you see the Golden Arches while driving, you know that if you pull over for a Big Mac and fries you can expect just about the same quality at any McDonald’s restaurant in the U.S.
A consistently delivered product that consumers trust is the first and most crucial step toward purpose. Because if a business can’t satisfy its customers with a quality product or service, it won’t be in business long enough to express its greater purpose.
Can brands, therefore, have a higher purpose? Most definitely, and it occurs in an experience where the brand owner and the consumer transcend the simple purchasing transaction to transform thinking and lives.
To get to this higher expression of the brand, the brand owner must intentionally seek to embrace a mindset that embraces purpose. And to get there, an organization’s leaders, including its communications professionals, must begin a dialogue where you’re open to asking some tough questions, such as the following:
1. Why did we get into this in the first place?
If your organization has been around for some time, its employees may have forgotten why the founder started the organization in the first place. What glaring need or problem did the founder risk time and treasure to solve? It’s often refreshing to go back into history to learn about the founder’s original “why.”
2. Do we really live up to our mission, vision and values?
Many organizations post carefully worded mission, vision and value statements on their websites or in their employee manuals. But when was the last time your company’s leadership team really took a hard look at those statements and asked themselves if the brand was living up to its promises?
When your organization was confronted by a seismic event – a major earthquake, a category 4 hurricane, or the Covid-19 pandemic – did your organization live up to its mission and values when everything was at its worst?
3. Are we willing to be courageous? To act boldly, when others are afraid or refuse?
It’s one thing to act boldly when the pressure is on; when all eyes are on your organization. It’s another to take a step forward and risk your organization’s reputation and turn off customers when you don’t need to. Nike’s 2018 “Just Do It” spot narrated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a good example of this. The company didn’t need to invite controversy to its brand; instead, it allowed it to better define it.
4. Is our purpose separate from how we operate our organization day-to-day, or is it integrated into everything we do?
Some organizations separate purpose and doing good from the core activities (operations, manufacturing, finance, service and sales) of their organization, while others embed purpose into the very fiber of everything they do. While your end customer may not know the difference, the ambassadors of your organization, your employees, will, and that will be reflected in how they interact with stakeholders who have a say in your organization’s success.
5. Are we clear about what we stand for – and what we don’t?
Has your organization’s leadership team (or board) actually talked through where it stands on important issues of the day – issues that may affect your company, such as gun violence, tariffs, sexual harassment, political conversations in the workplace, artificial intelligence, or income inequality? You may not need to express to the outside world where your brand stands on these issues, but you should take the time to reflect upon them and determine where it’s appropriate to add your voice, and where it’s not.
6. Are we willing to take a stand on a difficult issue?
According to a 2018 Accenture study, 62 percent of consumers want companies to take a stand on social, cultural, environmental and political issues that consumers care about (MarketingDive, Dec. 6, 2018). When the Minnesota Legislature voted to put on the ballot a referendum outlawing gay marriage, Minnesota’s leading companies, including Target, 3M and General Mills, stated publicly their opposition to the proposal. Many companies try to stay neutral to avoid upsetting customers. But if you know your customers well, like Chick-fi-la or Nike, you can take a public stand regardless of possible consumer backlash.
According to a 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli study on purpose-driven companies, the top ten issues that companies need to consider include:
- Privacy and internet security
- Domestic job growth
- Access to healthcare
- Sexual harassment
- Racial equality
- Women’s rights
- Cost of higher education
- Climate change
- Gun control
7. Will being a purpose-driven company help us build employee and customer loyalty?
As any marketing-driven company knows, the costs associated with obtaining a new customer or recruiting a new employee can be very expensive. Maintaining and increasing loyalty to ensure repeat purchases, therefore, is critical to reducing long-term marketing costs. At the heart of building a brand experience is the emotional connection between the brand owner and the customer. According to a Cone/Porter Novelli study on purpose-driven companies, 77 percent of Americans “say they feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven companies” and 79percent “say they would be more loyal to a purpose-driven company.”
8. Will taking a stand actually improve our bottom line?
When, following the Parkland school shooting massacre, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it was going to remove assault-style guns from its stores and raise the age to purchase guns to 21, the move was met with howls of protest from gun owners. Not only that, but the company went on to destroy $5 million worth of assault-style guns. The result: Sales did not go down. They went up. Gun owners who expressed their opposition were outweighed by customers who shared the company’s purpose.
9. Are our competitors building purpose-driven brands?
Look closely at the competitive brands in your industry category. Which companies are building purpose-driven brands, and which are not? Why, you ask? Because according to a 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli study about purpose, 66 percent of American consumers said they would switch from a product they typically buy to a new product from a purpose-driven company, and 57 percent said they would pay more for that product.”
10. Do the words and actions of our organization’s leaders reflect the values of our brand?
In today’s CEO-as-celebrity world, the actual words and actions of your organization’s top leaders matter more than ever. Missteps caught on video are amplified through social media. Recordings made years earlier can come back to haunt. Like their brands, the leaders behind those brands need to aim true, stay authentic, and be consistent. When was the last time your organization’s top leaders spent a day really talking and thinking about the brand experience and their personal role in supporting it?
11. Are our customers willing to stand up for us when we take a hit?
Eventually your brand will encounter a crisis. All brands do. But what distinguishes purpose-driven brands from those that are not is the willingness of customers to speak up for a brand. According to a Cone/Porter Novelli study, if a purpose-driven brand is spoken of negatively, 73 percent of consumers are willing to stand up for that brand.
12. How willing are our employees and customers to forgive us if we make a mistake?
The Cone/Porter Novelli study also found that 67 percent of American consumers would be more willing to forgive a purpose-driven company if that company makes a misstep.
13. In promoting our brand, do we connect the humans who work for the brand (employees) with the humans who use the brand (customers)?
Purpose-driven brands are authentic brands, and authenticity starts with the mindset that the brand is not B2B or B2C, but rather, H2H (human to human), as noted by marketing consultant Bryan Kramer in his book, Human to Human: H2H. If you want a purpose-driven brand, don’t be afraid to ask your customers — investors, employees, vendors and community leaders — for their honest feedback on how you’re doing. Seek to create a dialogue and more importantly, relationships. Real, human relationships. Take the feedback, learn from it, and intentionally seek to think higher and act more boldly.
14. Do our brand’s values align with the values of our customers and employees?
When the values of an organization don’t align with its employees or customers, friction occurs, according to branding expert Karl D. Speak, co-author of Be Your Own Brand. Most organizations only go to the effort of defining its brand while overlooking how its employees, customers and other stakeholders define their brands. But when you connect all three, as with Patagonia or REI, magic happens.
15. How do our customers, employees, vendors, investors and community leaders describe our brand when we’re not around?
Words matter. Perceptions matter. Use a third-party service (for example, a branding or market research firm) to learn how your stakeholders describe your organization and its brand experience. Do those words match what you want people to say about your brand? The lesson here is don’t assume that you know what your customers, employees and other stakeholders are actually thinking and saying about your brand.
16. Should we consider becoming a B corporation?
Certified B corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their stakeholders as well as the environment. Well-known B corporations include Ben & Jerry’s, Hootsuite, Stonyfield Organic, New Belgium Brewing and Allbirds, among others. Do you need to be a B corporation to lead with purpose? No. But making a commitment through a third-party and sticking with it, says a lot. To learn how to become a certified B corporation, visit bcorporation.net/certification.
17. Is our brand having a positive impact on the world beyond the sale of our product or service, the employment of our people, or the returns earned by our investors?
In working with a company that makes refrigeration units on a brand manifesto, I saw a bigger purpose – a company that helps keep medicine and food at exactly the right temperature to ensure not only its quality, but its safety. Likewise, for a manufacturer of work and hunting boots, we recognized that delivering comfort takes on more relevance when the user is building a home for a family who will call it “their home” one day. Look beyond the obvious to how people or our planet are being helped by your presence.
18. Are the parts, ingredients or supplies we use to make our product or deliver our service environmentally friendly and ethically manufactured?
More specifically, could your brand eliminate excessive packaging? Could it change to a different vendor that treats or pays its employees better than your previous vendor? Could you find a local source rather than order your parts from China? In a growing number of industries, third parties offer certifications and other honors to recognize organizations that are trying to make a difference in terms of diversity, the environment, workplace culture, etc. For example, golf courses that are striving to implement green practices seek out the a certification from the Audubon Society.
19. Are we willing to say we’re sorry when we’re wrong?
Saying sorry is difficult for most business leaders. Remember, it’s people who own and nurture brands. And, people make mistakes. If you make a mistake or hurt someone, go back to step 1 – to your values, and ask yourself, “Are we as an organization, willing to make things right? Are we willing to acknowledge that we made a mistake, rather than hide behind our defense counsel?”
20. Are we willing to measure whether our brand is living up to its purpose?
Purpose can be measured in a number of ways, from formal studies (awareness, perceptions, Net Promoter, etc.) to how your brand’s fans speak up for the brand online – through reviews, social media posts – or how they show up (at retail, at an event, or to work on the factory floor, etc.). If you take great pains to create a purpose-driven brand, make sure to measure how you’re doing to reinforce your good intentions.
21. Does our board of directors include members who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ?
What is the purpose of a board? It’s not to run the day-to-day of the business. Rather, it is to ask the CEO and the rest of the leadership team tough questions. If you want the same questions, you bring on people who look and act the same. But if you want your organization to see things from different perspectives so it’s not blindsided when an issue arises, you intentionally seek out diversity to strengthen it. Diversity of thought, of heritage, of ethnicity, of philosophy, and of creed is at the heart of the American Experiment. It’s what makes our culture, our democracy and our economy the most envied on the planet.
22. What part do we want in the future?
The brand owner controls the future of your brand story. You, the communications or marketing professional, are the brand owner. How do you want that story to read – five, ten or 20 years from now? Did you sit back and do nothing when you could have changed the world, or did you act boldly to transform the abundance of the world to make it a better place? Having a purpose-driven brand is an intentional choice. Small deliberate choices made over time compound to build a bigger story. Just remember, in the words of the band Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
The Bottom Line: Being Purpose Driven Requires Vision and Intent
Building a purpose-driven brand takes investment and time over the long run to create a brand that employees and consumers recognize for its purpose. More importantly, it takes vision and a change in mindset where everyone within an organization are focused on delivering an incredible brand experience with the intent of making higher profit margins and making a difference in the world. It’s a mindset where measuring the impact of your purpose takes on greater weight than meeting the expectations of Wall Street analysts.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Minneapolis creative firm Pocket Hercules. Email him at Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog, stephendupont.co. Dupont is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics magazine.