A few weeks ago, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm with over $6 trillion under its management, called for the corporations under its thumb to be more purposeful.
"To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society," Larry Fink wrote. "Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders."
These words, coming from the world’s largest asset management firm, largely fell on deaf ears. Sure, a few headlines were written in Forbes and the WSJ. But then the attention cycle shifted and the business world gave off a collective shrug, going back to business as usual.
Strange, considering that studies repeatedly show people want companies to speak up when it comes to hot button topics. Earlier this year, Sprout Social released a study that found 66 percent of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a stand on social/political issues. Only 11 percent reported that it was not important to them.
Larry Fink and two-thirds of consumers are agreed – there is an urgency to companies creating positive social impact that goes far beyond their responsibilities to create shareholder value. But herein lies the paradox for purpose-centricity: when pursued for the wrong reasons, such as driving shareholder value, it all falls apart. If consumers can tell that a company’s purpose-centric messaging is at all contrived, well – the company will probably be worse off than if it had stayed out of the conversation entirely.
Let me explain in more stark terms, with a bit of profanity mixed in.
Lesson #1: You Have to Give a Shit
If brands and businesses don’t show a real, tangible, and socially impactful purpose to their existence, people won’t give a shit about them. And if the CEOs of brands and businesses don’t give a shit about people, their companies will fail at being purposeful. That’s the first lesson: CEOs must give a shit.
A recent EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business Review study which surveyed 474 executives found that an overwhelming number of business leaders believe, in theory, that purpose is a transformative lever. 85 percent of those surveyed strongly agree that they are more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose, while 84 percent strongly agree that business transformation efforts will have greater success if integrated with purpose. In reality, the follow-through with those beliefs hasn’t exactly happened. Only 46 percent of those surveyed think that their organization has a strong sense of purpose. This disconnect is a clear indication of the chasm between truly leading by giving a shit, and preferring to stick to the status quo.
CEOs, CMOs, founders and other executive leadership must have true intentionality to help people first and grow profits second if they are to lead successful companies heading into the future. The intention to help humanity is at the root of giving a shit. It sets the purpose of the organization. It tells you who you really are as a leader, a business, and a brand. And most importantly, it creates authenticity by discounting profit as your main motivator. That’s a result of purpose, not its reason.
Lesson #2: You Need to Do Real Shit
Intention without action is cowardly. I’ve written this before. And the sentiment is as important as ever. There is a growing shift from storytelling to story-doing in modern marketing and advertising because people want to see brands living IRL. Brands and their marketing campaigns need to actively insert themselves in cultural tension points that are contextually relevant to their intention, and create compelling real-world experiences for people to take part in and share. They need to invest their purpose in what we at my agency call human-centric media – experiential, digital, social, and public relations – to articulate the purpose in culture through action rather than image.
This sentiment was recently shared by Wieden & Kennedy CCO Colleen DeCourcy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting, where she told the packed room that the marketing of our age is about humanity: "The brands that are audience-centric?—?human centric— that are focused on creating value for people, that combine tech with human insight and empathy, that ask and answer: What do real people want? That look at people as more than consumers. They are the ones we will mark in history."
Purpose doesn’t come in the form of TV spots or hashtags; those are just channels for its articulation. Real purpose comes in the form of brand action that supports cultural movements for social impact. And that impact has to be real, tangible, measurable, and commendable.
Lesson #3: You Should Find the Good Shit
Where does purpose live within a brand? This is a question that many marketers ask themselves fruitlessly, trying to figure out how to become more purposeful and often falling short. For many modern brands, those without the legacy or hierarchy or lethargy of their 20th century counterparts, finding purpose lies with taking a firm stand around social and cultural issues. A modern brand like Airbnb can lean into its purpose of bridging cultural and national divisiveness by creating experiences for people to live among others. Its purpose-led campaign called "We Accept" not only creates compelling content but also commits to providing free short-term housing for 100,000 people in need – refugees, victims of natural disasters and aid workers who travel to those places – and donates millions of dollars to the International Rescue Committee.
For less nimble brands, finding purpose may be harder and less authentically aligned. This fear of overstepping their place in culture or doing something tone-deaf (like Pepsi’s ill-fated and mercilessly mocked Kendall Jenner ad) keeps them from embracing the intention of purpose wholeheartedly. But purpose may be staring them right in the face, or more aptly, under their nose.
As one brand director at a massive legacy CPG company told me, "CSR has all the meaning but no budget and our brands have all the budgets but none of the meaning." A strategic deep-dive is required to bridge this disconnect, taking CSR stories from the back pages of annual corporate reports and bringing them to the forefront of a brand’s messaging. Excavating and articulating the stories that make brands great – and how they have positively affected people, culture, and the world – is a relatively frictionless way to express a unique purpose. A recent example of how this might look is Budweiser’s recent Super Bowl spot called "Stand By You," which focused on a brewery in Georgia that canned water instead of beer to send to victims of natural disasters across the country. The work currently has 20 million views on YouTube.
Lesson #4: You May Take Some Shit
Some time ago, Starbucks decided to encourage conversations around race relations in America. The reaction was less-than-nice. Howard Schultz, the CEO and founder, apologized profusely about the misguided effort, citing that most people couldn’t understand why a white billionaire would try something so audacious if not a bit tone-deaf. The furor subsided. And Starbucks continued to insert the brand in uncomfortable cultural conversations, doubling down on creating programs with deep social impact. Last year, it put out a campaign called "A Year of Good" where it touted some of the things it had accomplished for the world and the customer thanks it received, starting with the number of coffee and tea cups that were sold that year, and continuing to remind viewers that Starbucks also helped 8,000 veterans, sent 6,535 baristas to college, gave jobs to 10,000 young people, and planted 22 million trees.
Today, detractors are most visible online. Social media has changed the DNA of the corporate culture, making it more connected, empathetic, transparent, and human. It also ensures that the loudest cynics will most likely be heard. But that doesn’t mean that brands should shy from their desire to do good in the world, or stop voicing that good. Look, the world we live in is full of detractors. Every good intention will most likely be met with resistance from those who find fault with the underlying reason for the act. But brands that don’t reflect their internal empathy and human-centricity in the world will be passed over in favor of the ones that do. Damn the torpedoes. You can’t turn back. Cowering from defending the values of an organization – not shareholder value, but actual ethical and moral values – is the quickest way to failure.
Max Lenderman is the founder, CEO and chief creative officer at School, the purpose-led brand strategy and creative consultancy part of Project Worldwide.