Why having a grand corporate purpose is not a risk

“The idea that consumers are buying from purpose-driven companies is real.” – Norman de Greve, CMO, CVS Health

Primed at the intersection between profitability and philanthropy, companies like Toms, Warby Parker and Patagonia are often viewed as wildly aspirational. In each case, these businesses have been built, and staked their reputations, on being good and doing good in the world. Tom’s sells shoes, but their corporate purpose is to “advance health, education and economic opportunity for children and their communities around the world.” Patagonia sells outerwear, but their mission is simple: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”

“At A Little Bird, we have met companies that are hesitant to get ‘out of their lane,’” says Kelly Springs-Kelley, Director of Marketing. “They believe that thinking too big, too aspirational, is a risk. They are apprehensive about being too bold or potentially controversial. That their product or service would be overshadowed by a corporate purpose that seems ‘out of scope.’ But in today’s climate, brands that play it safe are in danger of falling into obscurity. In truth, the biggest risk for brands is not standing for something. More often than not, those organizations that are brave enough to go all-in on their grandest aspirations are rewarded.”

Companies need to understand that modern consumers seek brands that are transparent and “real”; they want brands to stand for something. And that “something” can be on any side of the political or social spectrum. It can be as simple as making people happy – or as big as changing the world. It just needs to be authentic.

Brands cannot hide behind marketing strategies any longer.  Like any human, brands need to “grow up” and discover who they are meant to be. They need to understand why they exist in this world and be brave enough to think (and act) big.

Conscious Consumerism

Modern consumers are socially-conscious. When it comes to the multitude of brands that are vying for their business and their loyalty, they want to know what these entities are doing beyond what’s expected (delivering the primary product or service). They want social responsibility and larger thinking to be a fundamental part of a company’s ethos. Not only that, but they need to see it. They want the brands they choose to leave a social footprint that is aligned with their own values.

By 2020, one-third of the U.S. population will be a part of Gen Z. This group is credited with being a driving force behind the shift towards corporate responsibility, accountability, and change. Paired with Millennials, they are savvy, empowered and intentional. It’s not enough to simply have the best product, the highest quality, or even the best price. A brand needs to tell a story that resonates to make a human connection that’s meaningful. And, in many cases, it needs to be big. Brands that consumers see as having a positive impact on the world and are genuinely ‘purpose-led’ grow at 2x the rate of other brands.

A recent study by DoSomething Strategic – a social impact consultancy – found that 66% of young consumers say that a brand’s association with a social cause or platform positively impacts their overall impression of a brand, while 58% say this association is also a positive driver of their likelihood to purchase from that brand. A whopping 77% say that they sometimes purchase products or services from a brand solely because they believe in the brand’s corporate purpose and want to support them.

Young consumers care less about whether what you’re selling aligns perfectly with what you’re supporting. While a corporate purpose needs to “make sense,” they care more about brands doing good on a holistic level. But it’s not about traditional corporate philanthropy. Social responsibility is nothing new, and thanks to tax cuts, write-offs, and government incentives, you’d be hard pressed to find a company that doesn’t positively impact at least one not-for-profit entity. But for many companies, their community contribution is a box to be checked, and is often done in a way that can only be considered the bare minimum. That is not what we are talking about when we refer to a grander corporate purpose.

When Nike launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, certain segments of the population were outraged. They organized boycotts; they shamed the brand on social media and anywhere else people would listen. Talking heads questioned the logic of taking such a controversial stance. And Nike’s sales rose. Chick-fil-A continues to donate “hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-LGBTQ groups despite backlash,” calling their position and support a “higher calling.” Their sales are up 17% this year.

When it comes to a grander corporate purpose, especially one that is potentially controversial or “too big,” while companies might assume bigger is scarier, the data show otherwise. But, before you jump on a bigger-is-better bandwagon, it’s important to take stock and ensure that you can live your aspirations, not just promote them.

Talk the talk – then walk the corporate purpose walk

Once you figure out who your company is, just talking about your purpose doesn’t resonate. You have to incorporate your purpose into your business model. There’s a big difference between speaking out about a purpose and rallying behind a cause. And conscious consumers are savvy enough to make that distinction.

A stellar example of a company living its values is REI. In 2015, REI announced it was closing all of its retail stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. And not only were they giving all of their employees the day off to get outside, they encouraged everyone else to do the same with the now infamous #OptOutside. The über successful campaign led to the brand’s social media impressions skyrocketing by 7,000%, with 2.7 billion media impressions in just 24 hours. Overall, in that year alone, they scored 6.7 billion impressions and, more impressively, got more than 1.4 million people to spend Black Friday outdoors.

That same year, more than 150 other companies closed their doors in response to the campaign, and hundreds of state parks offered free entry to the public. And today, hundreds more companies have followed suit. Non-profits and other organizations have jumped on the bandwagon and #OptOutside is 15 million people strong and growing. The financial impact of this ‘risky’ move? REI saw a record $2.4 billion in revenue, 9.3% year-over-year increase, and a record membership increase of 1 million people.

Quite simply, when it comes to a corporate purpose, actions speak louder than words.

Join the movement

Talking about what you have done can come off as boastful – but showing people what you stand for is inspirational. Is it possible that you will turn a few people off? Sure. But the data show that it’s worth the gamble. And there is a larger picture at play. Companies and corporate entities of all types have tremendous power in terms of resources, finances, and a public platform. If consumers hold brands to a larger purpose and those brands are obligated to take action, what was once a venture for profit has now become a platform for positive change. And when you follow that thinking, it is possible that purpose-based brand strategy could positively impact the world in ways we never imagined. It could even “save” us.

It’s clear that there is a paradigm shift when it comes to how brands interact with consumers, and it’s changing the world for the better. Is your brand brave enough to join the movement?