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Action over virtue: looking beyond purpose

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It appears that only an incredibly small portion of Fortune 500 companies believe that they should focus on making profit and their actions, rather than social goals.

Of course this is far from being negative. Such shift in perception heralds an era of heightened purpose for the entire industry, but it may also mean that some companies will want to pursue purpose over action, virtue over impact; which will lead to hollow, shallow, watered down purposes without the true power to change the world for the better. What is the role of creativity in all of this? How can we ensure that brands focus on the impact of their actions, rather than simply on preaching their good virtue?

We got in touch with Martin Johnston, Managing Director at Earth Strategies, to learn more about the topic below.

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From purpose to progress: a creative reassessment

If 2021’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity told us anything, it was that brands that communicate purpose are leading the way. And of course, that virtual awards ceremonies are no doubt more sober affairs than their in-person predecessors... but that’s another story for another time. Jurors at this year’s festival put their money where their mouth is, rewarding creative ideas that promote a purpose, rather than just a product such as Bodyform’s ‘Womb Stories’ and Dove’s ‘Courage is Beautiful’. 

And this is how it should be. The concept that brands need to do more than make money was once a novel one, but thankfully is now engrained in their ethos. 

However, the idea of a brand having a ‘purpose’ and doing something beneficial for people or the planet is at risk of being hijacked by creatives. Certainly, creating value beyond simply making profit is important. But, as the industry explores creative executions within the purpose landscape, the actionable impacts and understanding of what it means to have a purpose are being left behind.

We know that most brands now consider a mission statement a must-have. Only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs believe their companies should “mainly focus on making profits and not be distracted by social goals”; and 62% of US employees say their organisation has a purpose statement. On the face of it, this is a good thing. The bar has been raised for what is expected of the world’s businesses. 

The less fortunate results of this shift, however, have been the creation of hollow inward-facing ‘mission statements’, and narrative-obsessed campaigns that proclaim the virtues of organisations rather than their tangible and actionable impacts

From the creative industry’s perspective, the pursuit of purpose has exposed a theme of inward-focussed narrative creation. This won’t work and should not continue. To demonstrate real purpose, you cannot make a story up – when done effectively, purpose must be actionable and anchored in demonstrable impact. Purpose must capture authentic impact stories. This can then demonstrate a clear understanding of the ways in which a business affects the world and communities around itself to project a clear vision for its continued impact-led commitments.

In this sense, ‘purpose’ has followed in the footsteps of ‘sustainability’. From being an effective and useful goal, it has now been marketed to the point of meaninglessness. The same can be said for ‘green’ strategies, that have become greenwashing, just as significant purpose statements have been reduced into purpose-washing

To counteract the inward-focussed purpose comms, we need to reframe what it means to do purpose well – we need something more specific and well-defined. Something that speaks to the original intention and value of purpose, but also moves the conversation forward in a more impactful way. 

Above all, we need something that is centred on progress. And progress isn’t possible without action: real, concrete tangible steps forward. 

This is not the remit of ‘brands’ as we know them, which is why at Earth, we instead focus on ‘brand value systems’. This means examining how a brand creates and communicates value. Which can include looking at the ways it offers something beneficial to society and the planet, alongside where this value (or lack thereof) exists across the organisational system: its supply chain, workplaces, product design and so on. 

This approach involves the conversation about what a brand is starting with the walk, and not the talk. This equates to the brand no longer belonging only to the marketing department. It breaks out of that particular boardroom, and lives across every aspect of the business’s activities – whether that’s logistics and HR, or sourcing and sustainability. This also means that any discussion of a brand’s purpose is decentralised, for it to be owned by every part of the business. 

Social investment, in this context, becomes fundamental to a business’s operations. Traditionally, social investment is often side-lined under a separate brand, consigned to the realm of ‘CSR’ (another bolt-on approach), where its impact is limited in scope. But when social investment is part of an effective brand value system – and therefore aligned to every aspect of the business’s activities – it can work a lot harder. Instead of being kept small in its silo, it can create opportunities to think bigger, and differently. Social investment that is fully integrated as part of a brand value system has the potential to deliver stronger results not just for society, but also – because of its more visible and authentic impact on people and planet – for the business itself. 

The natural result of the ‘brand value system’ approach is that a company’s words and actions start to align. The marketing team can no longer say one thing while their annual report and supply chain data says something else. Some companies may choose to spend their marketing budget on action programmes, because it makes more sense for their brand value system. And when money does go into ad campaigns, the message will be about achievements rather than intentions.

Ultimately, we arrive at the point where companies are effortlessly honest. And surely that’s what purpose is about?

Martin Johnston is the Managing Director at Earth Strategies. Header image: Arie Bruinsma.

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