Them and Us: How profit and purpose live side by side

Written by
Matt Coombes
Head of Brand Strategy

Once again, Cannes has been buzzing with one word: purpose. The theme this year is hypocrisy: the tainting of purpose by cynical brands quick to make a fast buck off the back of a feel-good campaign.

This has been brewing for a while. A few weeks back, Mark Ritson went as far as saying a true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it. He concludes that, “it’s crucial we draw a line between businesses that were founded from purpose and those that originated with a profit agenda and applied purpose to secure more of it.”

On many levels I agree. But it does oversimplify the argument because it implies that purpose is an absolute—that you’re either all-in or morally bankrupt.
Now, I know what I’m about to say will be unpopular. But it is OK to make money. Returning a profit to shareholders is the right thing to do. And big, established businesses can declare a purpose and have a positive societal impact while making profit.

It’s easy – too easy – to say that the application of purpose to established brands is a cynical marketing ploy and while some time it is, making sweeping statements about purpose as a whole is defeatist. I don’t accept that there are purpose absolutes. It’s not black and white.

While the B Corps movement, which started in California, outlines a laudable framework of ethical standards, many companies will find it tough to change their legal structure to meet the stringent qualification requirements.* But that doesn’t make them evil. As Richard Branson puts it: “A business is simply an idea to make other people’s lives better.”

How to drive purpose throughout your business

  • Be clear. Declaring a Purpose is one thing. Activating is another. Activating Purpose often means breaking it down into actionable chunks.
  • Make it a reporting line. Work out how you can measure it, and put it on the leadership’s scorecards.
  • Bake it in. Make sure it’s a part of your product development and pricing strategy. Embrace community feedback. Acknowledge when you’re getting stuck and ask employees to help you solve the issues. Consider creating Ambassadors for your Purpose. Like Brand Ambassadors this can be a great way for employees to call out behaviours that are off-Purpose, and celebrate Purpose achievements. Done correctly this can really boost employee engagement and belief in Purpose impact.

There will always be a tension between profit and purpose. It may be imperfect. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Or that you can’t make progress. Or that it may take a long time to fully realise the purpose that you’ve applied to your company.
One of our clients, SunTrust, is a purpose-led company. It also happens to be a bank. They declared their purpose lighting the way to financial well-being around 8 years ago and while this isn’t overtly communicated to clients their core belief is that everyone can be financially confident. Starting with their employees, they’ve embarked on a programme of financial education the heart of which is a movement that has attracted nearly 5 million participants. They’re still making a profit. They still loan money to people and make interest off those loans, but their commitment to do this responsibly is palpable. You can feel it as you walk through the door, and on a daily basis we hear stories from people whose lives have been transformed by what they learned thanks to the onUp Movement.

SunTrust’s experience of purpose aligns very much with some of the themes that emerged in The Economist Big Debate at Cannes. There was a general consensus that the focus of a business is to make profit while the role of a brand is to drive purpose. To do that effectively requires a long-term strategy based on a core set of values to which the consumer is actually a minority stakeholder and indirect beneficiary. Employees have a far greater role.

Purpose, done right, therefore clearly extends way beyond marketing. When a company commits to it, and nurtures it through their employees (while encouraging them to discover their individual purpose too), it becomes ever harder to become hypocritical. Your employees become your purpose ambassadors and they’ll call out cynical behaviour before it reaches the consumer.

So while I agree with Alan Jobe, CEO of Unilever that “Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.”*** I worry that our pursuit of purpose as an absolute may lead to a polarised view of what’s worthy of creative time and what isn’t.

Profit is not the enemy of purpose, short-termism is. That’s true whether you make quick- buck business decision or no-go creative ones based on a limited set of criteria. Of course it’s easier to start from scratch, but I think the more creative challenges lie in helping established enterprises discover how they can deliver on their responsibilities to their shareholders and the world at the same time.

Tips for embracing purpose marketing

  • Ask yourself. Are you all in? Is this something that the whole company can own? This isn’t just marketing.
  • Be prepared to change your product strategy. Nothing screams hypocrisy louder than a brand and product being misaligned.
  • Know that it’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to take time and it’s going to be extremely frustrating at times. Be prepared to be honest about your failures and treat your successes with humility…and learn from both.
Written by
Matt Coombes
Head of Brand Strategy