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The New Mission of Purpose

By Oscar Suris

Purpose dictionary definition

The biggest trend in communications and marketing could well be the caused-inspired corporate purpose statement. And with its rise has come plenty of questions.

For instance, isn’t a purpose statement the same thing as a mission statement? (Answer: Depends on who you ask.) And aren’t most companies today committed to some form of corporate social responsibility? And great products and services, a great brand and strong financial results – they still shape a company’s reputation, right?

For answers, many of my peers turned to last week’s PRWeek “PR Decoded” Conference in Chicago for two days of talks about what’s required to succeed in these purpose-infused times.

Global companies and brands, such as Levi’s, Nike, Twitter, and Danone shared their stories to demonstrate how it is possible to extend a business’ raison d'être beyond profits and still win the confidence of customers and investors, while juggling the concerns of employees, NGOs, public officials and others.  

We also heard the work of championing purpose is complex and challenging, because it involves reconciling the diverse views of stakeholders against a company’s business mission. Courage is involved, too, because the work is constantly being judged for authenticity (no company wants to be accused of "purpose washing"). And then there’s the always present risk of backlash from those who see no place for social activism in business.

And, yet, something has clearly changed. Whereas not long ago – perhaps as recently as five years – it was enough to say a company’s purpose was to make the best products and services and generate the best returns. Today, values increasingly define a business. Do they share the right ones with their stakeholders, and are those values embedded in their operations? 

What started the trend? Probably the reappraisal of workplace and societal values that began as Millennials and their younger cohort, Generation Z, entered adulthood. Zeno Group shared this insight last week at PR Decoded, as we offered our view on what drives purposeful perceptions of companies and brands.

Therese Caruso, Zeno’s managing director of Global Strategy + Planning, unveiled select U.S. results from the “Strength of Purpose” study that Zeno is concluding this month – a survey of 8,000 people across eight countries and three continents. The study probes the key attributes of purposeful companies to understand if there are differences between companies that are viewed to have a valued purpose and those that do not.

Zeno’s initial insights included:

  • When companies and brands get purpose right, they are rewarded. Seventy-eight percent of Zeno’s U.S. respondents said they either started buying from a brand, or encouraged others to support it, or publicly shared their positive views about it, when they found they believed in a company or brand’s purpose.
  • When brands and companies get purpose wrong, they face the “cancel culture.” Seventy-three percent of those Zeno surveyed in the U.S. either permanently stopped buying from a brand, or actively discouraged others from buying it, or turned to a competing brand, if they disagreed with an action that a company or brand had taken.
  • With strong purpose comes reputation insurance. Ninety percent of Zeno’s U.S. survey respondents said they are more likely to continue to support a brand or a company after it has made a misstep if it has a strong purpose.

Zeno said the early findings reflected the strong influence of younger generations; they place greater value on how companies treat employees, often using that lens to judge a company’s mission.

For example, 39 percent of Gen Z respondents in the U.S. said they are more likely to seek employment with companies that have a purpose they agree with versus 26 percent for all other generations. Indeed, when Zeno asked what companies should do with their profits, the top three responses of Gen Z respondents were “create more jobs,” “increase employee compensation and benefits,” and “invest in employee training and educational opportunities.”

Could the purpose movement be a fad? We don’t think so. At Zeno, we believe the value and attitude shifts that have come with Gen Z’s blossoming are here to stay, because they are in step with a public that has lost confidence in public institutions and wants more leadership from brands and companies they spend with.

People today get that a company’s mission is the “what.” Now they want those leading boardrooms and C-suites to focus on purpose, the “why.”

Why? Because many believe the world’s future depends on it.