This summer, 118 CEOs signed a letter agreeing that executives need to look beyond maximizing shareholder profits and think about how their companies can benefit all stakeholders. Over the next several weeks, this redefinition of purpose in the business world sparked a long discussion over the role that companies should have in society—as in one that commits to people, communities and the planet, or the more conventional approach, which focuses solely on Wall Street’s quarterly earnings expectations.
It’s clear to leaders at the public relations firm Porter Novelli where the company stands on purpose. Since opening its doors in 1972, this agency has worked on a bevy of campaigns that were far ahead of their time. The list is long: In 1975, Porter Novelli helped launch the First New York Bank for Business, which was founded to help serve the financial needs of women entrepreneurs. Other campaigns include the National Cancer Institute’s Five-A-Day Program for Better Health; a 1998 “truth” campaign that ended with the largest single-year decline in teen smoking across the U.S. in 20 years; and the viral-video-inducing ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
“Purpose is in Porter Novelli’s DNA and core to our heart,” said CEO Brad MacAfee. “It is critical to our agency—which works diligently to help organizations find, live and tell their greater ambition in order to positively impact society —that we are authentic in our own approach.”
It’s not enough for a company to define its purpose, however. It’s up to that organization’s leadership and employees to ensure such efforts are more than skin deep, or they risk being labeled as inauthentic.
“With purpose taking center stage in the C-Suite and among marketers, we run the risk of purpose-washing and thinking of purpose as solely an emotional brand campaign that talks about a company’s values,” observed Alison DaSilva, Porter Novelli’s executive vice president of corporate social responsibility and purpose. “We believe that companies need to not only find their purpose, but also live and tell their purpose each and every day.”
From DaSilva’s perspective, a company’s purpose must guide its everyday business practices and inform its relationships with stakeholders. Purpose has to permeate throughout everything a company does, from how its products are packaged to how it manages day-today engagement with employees. In the end, such an approach can not only help a company evolve, adapt and innovate, but also thrive by becoming a positive force for society.
At its core, corporate purpose isn’t about how to cope with the realities of conducting business in the here and how—it’s about keeping an eye to the future. More than 75 percent of U.S. consumers now expect businesses to have a positive impact on society that goes beyond turning a profit, according to a recent Porter Novelli survey. The changing demographics of the U.S. workforce, evident as younger baby boomer and older Gen X workers approach retirement, means that future employees will increasingly expect employers to share their values.
“Looking at a company’s purpose is increasingly part of the decision-making set not only in terms of what to buy, but also decisions like where to work, what to invest in, and which companies are operating in local communities,” said Whitney Dailey, Porter Novelli’s vice president of marketing, research and insights. “This is particularly the case with millennials, and now we’re seeing Gen Z with equally strong convictions. These demographics want to work for and buy from companies that share their values.”
In other words: Today’s workforce is increasingly vocal about what matters to them, and the way companies respond to the hot-button issues of the day will directly affect their reputations.
If they hope to attract the best and brightest, now is the time to lead by example. “There is an expectation from millennials and Gen Z that they won’t have to check their values at the door when they enter the workplace,” DaSilva added.
It’s clear that purpose can become a strong source of competitive advantage for companies, as more executives realize purpose can drive long-term strategies, differentiate a company from its competitors, and maintain trust and engagement among employees.
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Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.