Purpose is the bottom line

Not long ago, I started thinking about the brands that mattered most to me as a kid: Levi’s, Cheetos, Toyota, Rossignol. What, I wondered, was their purpose? Why did they exist? What was their North Star?

The more I thought about these questions, the more obvious the answers seemed. Cheetos wanted to sell me cheese-flavored snacks. Levi’s wanted to sell me jeans. Coke wanted to sell the whole world a Coke — a lovely, if self-serving, sentiment. Looking back, it’s clear: The brands of my youth were just brands. To them, I was just a consumer. The world we shared was just a marketplace. Sure, brands helped shape my identity — I knew the perfect pair of Rossignol skis would make me ineffably cool (and I was right!) — but our relationship was purely transactional.

But, times have changed. Those brands have changed, too.

Earlier this year, WE Communications and Quartz Insights released a study called Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It. We found it’s no longer enough for brands to focus only on maximizing their profits. Today, the public expects brands, companies, and organizations to respond substantively to the world around us, and to build relationships around our shared humanity — not just around the cash register.

For instance:

  • Most respondents believe brands, rather than governments, are responsible for driving social change.
  • Most respondents also believe brands can be a part of the solution to problems like climate change and widening inequality — but only if they define their purpose and take a stand.  
  • Nearly three-quarters of respondents think an organization’s purpose leadership will become as important as its financial performance. In other words, purpose strategy is as essential to a company’s long-term health as business strategy is.

Simply put, we’ve reached an inflection point. Purpose isn’t a trend or a fad, and it isn’t optional; instead, it’s the bottom line.

So: How can brands build a purpose that endures? For one thing, purposeful leadership starts with listening. A brand’s purpose isn’t a top-down edict from the C-suite; it’s an organic, authentic connection with the needs and values of customers, employees, and communities.

Purposeful leadership also reflects an alignment of story and action. This means, it’s not what we say that matters — it’s what we do. That’s why our research shows that personal conviction is the heart of purpose leadership. Without an authentic commitment to a brand’s mission and values, purpose is just lip service — and customers can see through it in a flash.

Purpose is an organization’s story, its road map, its soul — its why. An organization’s purpose shapes every decision it makes. It brings meaning to its everyday work. It drives genuine, lasting change. It buoys commitment and communication, and it helps us stand tall in the face of adversity.

I know it’s not always easy to build a brand with purpose—but I also know we’re not going back to the days when companies could peddle snacks or jeans from inside a bubble sealed off from the world around them. What’s more, I wouldn’t want to. Would you?


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

To her clients and colleagues, Melissa Waggener Zorkin is renowned for her belief in purpose, potential and possibility.