Related Expertise: Business and Organizational Purpose, Marketing and Sales

How Purpose Can Give Brands Something Worth Saying on Marketing’s Biggest Weekend

By Mike Lear

“Purpose” has fast become one of the hottest buzzwords in marketing. Companies increasingly are using high-profile television advertising campaigns to broadcast their higher public purpose, such as a commitment to the environment, diversity, helping people in dire need, or empowering people with disabilities.

There is a strong business case for talking about purpose. But if purpose campaigns come across as inauthentic, they can do more harm than good. Your brand can be dismissed by the very communities you are targeting.

Here are some tips for building a compelling and effective purpose campaign:

  • Articulate a purpose based on careful research. Every organization has a public purpose beyond making money. But it’s not always obvious. Often purpose must be excavated through extensive interviews with executives, employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
  • Embed your purpose deeply into the organization. If the purpose statement doesn’t align with what your company actually does, people will sniff it out. If your organization walks the talk, and has a history of doing so, go ahead and publicly promote it.
  • Back purpose statements with bold action. Purpose campaigns get really exciting when companies bring them to life with bold commitments and initiatives that stand out among their industry peers.
You can learn more about how to create and executive an effective purpose campaign here.

To American football fans, this Sunday’s NFL championship game is the Greatest Show on Earth. To marketers, it’s the day when more than 100 million pairs of eyeballs are glued to the same channel. Companies compete intensely to air the cleverest, most outrageous, and most attention-getting ads. Increasingly, though, the intent is not only to tout a company’s products. Sponsors are also using this prized real estate, subtly or overtly, to broadcast to the world their higher public purpose. This greater good might manifest as a commitment to the environment. Or to diversity. Or to helping communities in dire need. Or to empowering people with disabilities.

Indeed, “purpose” has fast become one of the hottest buzzwords in marketing. All kinds of companies that didn’t talk about purpose on their websites just two years ago are now talking about it all the time and launching campaigns to harp on their good deeds. We saw it all over last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

There’s a strong business case for talking about purpose. Research by BCG BrightHouse has found that companies that harness the power of purpose have significantly higher shareholder returns, greater revenue growth, and more engaged and inspired employees than organizations that have not articulated a strong purpose. Purpose has also become crucial to recruiting. Young people landing six-figure jobs right out of school these days want to work at a firm that says it leads with integrity, that makes them feel proud. I think that’s why you’re seeing purpose campaigns across industries all around the world.

The Risks of Inauthentic Purpose Campaigns

What many companies don’t fully appreciate, though, is that you can actually damage your brand if you don’t do it right. An organizational purpose campaign isn’t just an advertising campaign. In fact, the two require different parts of the brain. An advertising agency can create a story out of an insight and nothing more. That’s its job—to bring creative solutions to business problems.

Articulating a purpose, on the other hand, requires rigorous research on what your company is about and what it has always been about. Purpose has to be authentic. And to be effective, it must be embedded deep in your organization.

We’ve all seen examples of ads that seem flippant and lack authenticity. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been lots of ads supporting civil rights. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of “trans lives matter” ads. Reflecting the true diversity of the communities companies serve is long overdue, of course.

But oftentimes, the messages aren’t aligned with what a particular company is about. Is the organization actively working to support these communities beyond writing checks? Or is it also writing checks to groups or politicians that undermine diversity? Or is it duplicitous? Some companies that pledge robust sustainability initiatives, for example, lobby to prevent environmental regulations.

If the organization is walking the talk, and has a history of doing so, it should go ahead and promote that. But if not, people will sniff that out. You will be seen as pandering. Or “purpose washing,” if you will. Instead of strengthening your brand, you could end up driving away the very communities you’re targeting.

Articulating Your Purpose

The first step in building an effective campaign is to clearly articulate your purpose. It’s our conviction that every organization has a purpose. But it isn’t always obvious. Often it must be excavated through extensive interviews with executives, employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Some purposes go all the way back to the founders. The Denny’s restaurant chain, which I used to work with in my advertising years, defines its purpose as, “We love to feed people.” That was a line founder Harold Butler used when he opened his first diner in California in the late 1950s. There are elements of this purpose that have lived on. When a hurricane hits, for example, Denny’s shows up with a mobile relief diner to feed people. When the power comes back on, the diner moves to the next place it’s needed.

One of our clients, Bank of Montreal, defined its purpose as, “Boldly grow the good.” To put this into action, the bank identified three areas for making a major commitment that will help drive an inclusive and equitable economy: advancing progress for indigenous peoples, supporting women in business, and environmentally sustainable finance. BMO has also recently announced its climate ambition and pledged to double its commitment to sustainable finance.

Sometimes companies have made statements—but find they aren’t resonating publicly. The global food distribution company Sysco, for example, already had an excellent purpose statement: “Connecting the world to share food and care for one another.” But it needed to bring it to life. We did a lot of research to uncover the deeper meaning of what “connecting,” “sharing,” and “caring” meant to Sysco’s executives, workforce, and customers.

We discovered some remarkable stories that illustrated these ideals brilliantly. When a wildfire devasted much of Talent, Oregon, in 2020, for example, a restaurant owned by Indian immigrants was still standing. So they started feeding everybody in need. Sysco heard about this and began delivering food to help make it happen. We produced videos of this and other inspiring stories for a successful campaign.

Where purpose campaigns get really exciting is when companies make bold commitments to their stakeholders. A great example is the OptOutside campaign of REI, the outdoors recreational equipment company. On Black Friday, one the biggest sales days of the year, REI closes its stores and urges people to use the time doing something outdoors. That aligns with their mission statement, which is to “inspire, educate, and outfit our customers for a lifetime of adventure and stewardship.” And it’s effective: REI isn’t a client, but I’m a member of their co-op because I love what they do.

To many marketers, purpose may still be just a buzzword. But by no means is it a passing fad. Rather, as the expectations of customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders continue to intensify, it is the future of business. By taking the time and effort to unearth the genuine purpose at the core of your business and boldly and consistently acting on it, your company will really have something to talk about on Super Bowl Sunday.

This article would not have been possible without the deep expertise and knowledge of my BCG BrightHouse colleague Rebecca Cullers.

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