Social purpose builds brand value and ROI

Strategizing social purpose

Corporate social responsibility

Corporate CSR initiatives aren’t new. In the 1960s, this term referred to corporate philanthropy motivated by a general sense of moral and legal responsibility to the world-at-large. The problem with CSR is that it separated social responsibility from core business functions. In recent years CSR has been eclipsed by ‘social purpose,’ which was developed to integrate the two. This new paradigm gained traction with the growing realization that aligning core business with social purpose is a win-win both for ROI and community initiatives. Social purpose also helps improve a business’s brand and reputation while reducing regulatory risk.

How can social purpose benefit business?

Recent research is conclusive: consumers are aware of which brands contribute to the well-being of society and the environment and those that don’t. People support companies they believe are making a positive impact on the planet. According to a recent Cone Communications study, 90% of consumers will support a company that promotes their values. Similarly, a Nielson study found that 75% would boycott the products and services of a company that exhibits values/practices contrary to their beliefs.90% of consumers will support a company that promotes their values.

With few exceptions, major corporations are now dedicated to driving social purpose initiatives. However, surveys show that only about half of a representative cross-section of companies say their organizations are social purpose-driven and only 25% report close alignment of their brand with a social purpose. So, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Customers and B2B companies have access to extensive online information about supplier companies and their products. While quality of product and price are still paramount, customers are increasingly influenced by how and where a product is manufactured, the environmental practices in its manufacture, worker conditions, and the corporate behavior of a company making the product. A successful brand now needs to maintain a clean corporate reputation, one that persuades customers that they share the same values, understanding, and purpose.

Strategizing social purpose

Strategizing an effective social purpose requires –

  • Inclusion of all stakeholders;
  • Clear communication of values conveyed through ‘proof of impact’ stories;
  • Ensuring products are safe, of high quality/reliability, and incorporate leading-edge design;
  • Developing outstanding, insightful content that can be tailored to demographic subgroups and individuals one-on-one;
  • Complete buy-in of C-level executives and management in advocating a company’s social purpose;
  • Utilizing internal and external social media to encourage and facilitate collaboration among employees;
  • Inspiring employees to become brand ambassadors advocating for the company; and
  • Harnessing mobile devices to reinforce brand value.


Several years ago, Landor, a high-level brand consultancy, launched a best practice study of 11 of the best-known corporations in the world. This included heavy-hitters like American Express, IBM, Microsoft, Dell, HP, General Mills, Nike, and Nokia. They discovered that all 11 brands were actively engaged in advancing social purpose. Survey results also revealed that all these organizations had strong C-level support in implementing cross-silo changes that integrated social purpose with business priorities.

Their research identified six sequential steps for companies strategizing social purpose

1Create a process for cross-silo collaboration to integrate social outreach, marketing, branding, and philanthropy. A company needs to be genuinely committed both to social good and business good. Achieving such commitment requires an innovative, holistic mindset and buy-in from all divisions and employee ranks.

One stand-out example of this kind of success is GE’s ‘imagination at work’ and ‘eco-imagination’ initiatives which linked manufacturing to environmental improvement and job growth.

2Carefully assess what your company is best at and what your customers care most about. You may identify three or four preliminary social value ‘candidates.’ Then identify the value that’s most salient to your customers, one also consistent with your values, products, and services. This process of ‘relative differentiation’ will reveal your single strongest competitive advantage. Finally, act to achieve that social good.

For example, Pedigree dog food’s value ‘being for dogs’ is smartly executed. The company not only promotes dog products, but also provides information on where to find adoptable dogs, inspiring adoption stories, and additional information on how to donate to local dog shelters and join their dog-support community. These initiatives have helped them build strong loyalty among dog lovers and owners.

3Identify an initiative that can deliver both business and social benefits. Consider how you can make this a long-term opportunity because major goals are seldom achievable in the short term. To achieve the long-term benefits, you’ll need to map out a series of short-term gains that over time will lead to long-term internal and external gains.

Achieving major long-term objectives can completely transform a business and community. For example, IBM’s ‘smarter planet’ initiative was designed not only to make industries like banking and energy smarter but also to help improve government and make education smarter. IBM is exemplary in seeing no separation between business good and social good. From their perspective, selling products and improving the world are inextricably interlinked.

IBM identified several benefits resulting from this program: the ability to attract and retain key talent; to create media recognition considerably above the dollar value of the media time purchased; and, most importantly, to gain new competencies/capabilities while identifying new markets for IBM products.

4Make sure that your social purpose is something your employees will endorse. Will they see it as authentic? Do they believe it can create lasting social value? Will they actively promote it?

Social purpose is much more than just a marketing plan. It requires self-assessment, the definition of options, and follow-through. With a winning, meaningful social purpose, you can motivate employees to reach their higher potential while attracting a better pool of new job candidates.

This process requires that upper management spearhead an “inside-out” initiative. This is the only way to achieve an internal consensus indispensable to success. Historically, most businesses mistakenly begin with external inputs (e.g., a snappy marketing theme that has nothing to do with reality). This is why so many standard change initiatives fail. The keystone element of the much more successful inside-out process is getting feedback and buy-in from employees. Market research demonstrates that enthusiastic employees dedicated to a company’s vision and mission are the best proponents of a business’s social purpose and brand quality.

An authentic, persuasive, social purpose is then be introduced to internal stakeholders for their buy-in. Only then can companies communicate a more inspiring and realistic brand identity to the external world. Early adopters that follow the practice of first merging business and social good and then communicating that message to customers, gain an incredible competitive advantage.

Whole Foods, is a company that ‘walks the talk.’ Amazon (Whole Foods’ new owners) would do well not to compromise Whole Foods’ long-standing commitment to selling great products, providing excellent customer service, protecting the environment and promoting the wellbeing of their stakeholders. Their products and services embody these values. High prices were their only failing.

5Explore new ways of collaborating with new partners, even competitors. Collaboration with suppliers, non-profit groups, and even (in some cases) competitors can catalyze major breakthroughs. Many managers will resist this idea because they see working with other entities as a zero-sum game (i.e., one in which there is a winner and loser(s)). A more realistic model for the typical benefit of any collaboration is the win-win dynamic (aka, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ concept)—in which all parties benefit.

Tom’s Shoes, for example, works with NGOs, customers, and other partners to help them improve their mission of contributing a pair of free shoes to children in need for every pair of shoes purchased. This has gained them widespread praise and brand loyalty.

6Explore ideas that can be generated from recent ones. The best advice is to celebrate your successes, but never to rest on your laurels. All eleven major corporations in the Landor study have continued to find new sources to grow their competencies, to expand their organizations’ capabilities, to open new markets and even to start entirely new businesses. ‘Grand purpose,’ opens a path to new markets, products, services, and capabilities.

Additional considerations

  • When working to establish cross-silo collaboration, begin by exploring goals that are in alignment between divisions. Discuss commonalities. Research options that are in contention to get an objective understanding of the pros and cons of each.
  • Executives with a zero-sum mentality may require one-on-one coaching to understand the objective benefits of win-win collaboration.
  • Employees are now recognized as the primary delivery mechanism for social purpose to the world. But HR, field sales, and other corporate and local entities also fill unofficial marketing roles. This requires a new alignment between all these agencies for optimal benefit.
  • Many companies are expanding their ROI business metric to include such things as the value of increased competencies and capabilities, new markets, products, and businesses.
  • While most corporations avoid polarizing social purposes, some companies have a customer base that skews strongly to the right, left, or one that simply aligns with an unpopular value. In such cases, before communicating a controversial value position to the world-at-large, all stakeholders must be on board. The position taken must be presented as diplomatically as possible to the outside world.
  • Companies gain recognition when advertising links grand purpose’ to sympathetic, genuine personal testimonials.
  • Management should involve employees in larger causes. Initiatives shouldn’t be limited to upper management.
  • Many believe that we are only at the beginning of a business transformation that will disseminate social purpose, aka grand purpose to all levels of business. We may reach a future tipping point in which a majority of businesses implement social purpose in their strategic planning. Those organizations that don’t engage in a purposeful way with their larger community will be held as suspect, resulting in a degraded brand. If/when this happens, it will change the very nature of what it means to be a commercial entity.
  • Those who support brand purpose are heavily invested in not letting it become a fad. They see it as a movement which is transforming the dialogue of what it means to be a company with a brand.
  • Having a winning social purpose helps companies recruit talent and retain staff. Employees place a high value on work that is meaningful and principle-driven. Everyone, young and old, wants to work for an organization that aims to create a better world.

Whether it is attracting new talent, driving business growth or increasing consumer trust, brands that identify a genuine social purpose and implement a strategy to support it, stand to benefit greatly with a stronger sense of mission and higher profits.


Social Purpose (SP) has supplanted Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). SP, which aligns business mission/vision with social advancement has proved much more effective in advancing social progress, improving branding, and growing ROI. The success of the six principles identified above requires complete dedication from upper management. Employees require frequent, consistent messaging to by on board with changes.

  • Make sure you’re connecting social good w/ business good—i.e., linking them together across silo boundaries;
  • Make sure that the brand purpose you’ve identified is relevant and differentiating—i.e., that it connects to what’s important to customers, employees, and stakeholders, that it aligns with your business and sets you apart from your competitors.
  • Identify your purpose at depth so you can tackle new, ambitious goals for your organization as well as the external world.
  • Make sure you’re ‘walking the talk’ before you ‘talk the talk’—to start first w/ employees to enlist their support in your vision for linking social and business value before you communicate it to the world.
  • Work with others to identify potential partnerships with stakeholders to advance business goals and social purpose.
  • Finally, recognize that purpose is a journey, not a destination.

So, in summation – identify a purpose that is also a business opportunity, one that is relevant and differentiating, is implemented internally before being presented to the outside world, has expansive value, and drives partnerships.