We are living in the Age of Purpose — purpose as a collective value of growing cultural importance in many societies, purpose as an emerging leading force in personal and career development, and purpose as a driver of business decisions looking to create long-term value, build resilience and connect with increasingly conscious stakeholders. It may be early days for the Age of Purpose, but there are many signs it will only continue to gain momentum. As the demand for new products, services and business models that deliver both purpose and profit continues to soar, brand leaders who are tapping into this shift are poised to thrive in the face of ecological, social and economic uncertainties.
Building a purpose-led brand isn’t trivial, however. It takes vision, courage, hard work, the right tools and partners, as well as lots of patience on multiple fronts. Beyond the scope of any individual organization, it also takes serious system-level action that re-defines the way we understand and measure success. Talking to hundreds of business leaders and other key players in the economy — as I do, daily, within the global Sustainable Brands community — reveals seven essential components of purpose-led business. I outline them briefly below, and they are also serving as topical tracks of this year’s SB’16 San Diego program.
It all starts with a solid understanding of the macro forces shaping our world and creating system conditions for purpose-driven businesses to scale and thrive. It is crucial for brands with authentic world-changing aspirations to have actionable up-to-date intelligence on key economic, social, environmental, technological, behavioral and spiritual megatrends. Equally important is to strategize around, or at least be well acquainted with, key globally-relevant developments such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the momentum generated at COP21 in Paris, and major shifts in the orientation of the investor community.
Transformative personal purpose and courageous leadership have given rise to many of today’s outstanding brands and breakthrough innovation. Cultivating purpose-driven leadership and influence can arise from a variety of belief systems and faith traditions, or from other large-scale sources such as generational characteristics of Millennials and Gen Z. It can also arise from thoughtful failure, proactive observation of flawed systems, or even simply an eccentric or iconoclastic attitude.
In the Age of Purpose, sustainability teams, “green teams” and social innovation teams do not exist in isolation. At the very least, such teams are frequently collaborating with many, if not all, other key functions of the organization. At best, all purpose-related elements are embedded into every team’s work, as new norms in a next-level high-performing organization. To accomplish that, companies can adjust organizational structures and incentives for optimal execution of evolved priorities, manage teams in times of uncertainty and adversity, understand how new cultural phenomena and hot-button social issues of the day affect employee motivation, and of course equip internal change agents with the skills and tools needed to succeed at “converting” laggards.
It’s becoming harder and harder — soon to be impossible, if you ask me — for brands to have any “purpose cred” without actually embedding it into the very products and services they put out into the world. Purpose can be authentic as a side show for a limited time only; after that, it needs to be center stage, guiding both strategy and innovation, if it is to survive in the long run. There is no shortage of compelling frameworks and tools to guide this kind of process — ones based on circular economy, net positive, peer-to-peer, biomimicry, green chemistry, among many other methods of creating new forms of shared value. And to enhance the process, wise innovators are tapping into empathy-centric design processes to help solve multiple problems at once, leveraging smart cities and other natural nexus points as platforms for innovation, and giving customers new levels of connectivity, control and purpose-enabling tools.
It could easily all go in vain without adequate customer engagement, or, in other words, without compelling brand positioning, marketing and communications in support of a purpose-inspired journey. Key topics in this domain include: redefining brand purpose and key narratives; translating brand purpose into practical values-centric language that customers relate to; influencing customer demand and behavior in favor of more sustainable consumption norms; identifying leading predictive technologies and other tech tools that help decipher customer attitudes and behavior better than ever before; and, ultimately, merging purpose and profit through the unifying power of the universal human search for meaning.
It is well known that, for many consumer-facing brands out there, the majority of environmental and social impacts are in their supply chains. If suppliers and vendors aren’t engaged in the pursuit of unified purpose along the whole value chain, real system-wide impacts will be hard to realize and the purpose journey can easily stall. Brands can do a number of things to incentivize and equip upstream players, including purpose-centric evaluations that encourage a race to the top; testing and adopting new tools that improve transparency and mutual accountability; finding new ways to partner in order to shift procurement and purchasing decisions at scale; and communicating the tangible value of purpose-driven innovation to buyers and sellers alike.
The Age of Purpose may be just beginning, but there already are thousands of thought leaders and practitioners out there willing and able to make productive use of their collective knowledge, energy, creativity and influence by pooling insight, debating complex issues, solving problems on the go, conceiving and supporting new group initiatives and, of course, forming new business partnerships in a dynamic, highly-networked fashion. In June, SB’16 San Diego will bring together over 2000 of the leading change agents devoted to activating purpose across hundreds of the world’s most influential brands, with 200 world-class speakers exploring all topics mentioned in this piece in detail. Join for an abundance of new and evolving research data, case studies, tools and partners looking to support you on your journey to activating purpose.