The thing I need most in my life right now is a purpose-driven paper towel brand. Isn’t that what you were thinking too? In any case, that was the title of a humor piece by John Long on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Why is the piece funny? Because it’s true. Purpose-driven has become a brand buzzword. And every brand seems to want to be it—whether they are truly purpose-driven or not.
How do you know if you can stand for being purpose-driven? Research can tell you. So can your brand platform, which includes your values. Branding is about building a reputation—it’s about what you say you do—and also about what you really do. How you position yourself in the marketplace should be a balance of grounded, reach and stretch. Research can tell you how much permission you have to be purpose-driven. Because if there’s too much stretch for you to be believable as a purpose-driven brand, then you shouldn’t go there—at least until you can change things within your company to make you more authentic. Because otherwise, like our (luckily fictional) paper towel brand, you’ll be laughed at instead of lauded.
But what if you can be genuine as a purpose-driven brand? One way to prove you’re serious about being purpose driven is to apply to become a B-corporation. It involves a rigorous process, but if certified by B Lab, you’ll say to the world, “Yes, my entire social and environmental performance is worthy of your attention. I’m not just pretending to be a positive impact company—I am one—and I will be well into the future too.”
According to Harvard Business Review, B-Corp certification allows for a clear identity, which can help firms communicate their values to customers. Famous B-Corps include Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, which are both good examples of brands with focus. These B-Corps act in a responsible way that reflects who they are and what they stand for. So they are successful at being purpose driven.
When you’re successful at being purpose driven, you can almost guarantee you’ll be successful financially. According to LinkedIn, which compiled various stats on the financial impact of being purpose-driven, there’s a strong business case to be made for committing to it. In a Cone/Porter Novelli survey, 66% of respondents would switch from a product they currently buy to a new product from a purpose-driven company–and when Millennials are polled, this proportion rises to 91%. If B-Corp status is the proven way to take a stand as a purpose-driven brand, it’s no wonder that since the first B-Corp was certified in 2007, more than 6,000 B-Corporations are certified today.
Not being a B-Corp doesn’t stop you from creating a purpose-driven brand, however. Many companies today, from Nike to Unilever to Dick’s Sporting Goods are doing things to appeal to the heart of what their consumers care about. Nike isn’t just about sports shoes or clothing anymore, it’s about the political activism of Colin Kaepernick. Dove isn’t just about soap; it’s about standing for natural beauty. And Dick’s Sporting Goods isn’t just about sporting equipment; it’s about firearm regulation. Brands across the country—and the world—are taking bold steps to be known for something more than just their product.
But is purpose-driven branding right for you? As research demonstrates, consumers are becoming experts in recognizing insincere brands. So unless you are grounded and committed enough to achieve that coveted B-Corp status, you might want to reconsider your purpose-driven branding ideas—also because those who try to become purpose-driven are either a huge success—or a horrible failure.
What separates the successes from the failures? Look at a purpose-driven brand’s brand platform. Are the values the company says they hold truly coming from their core or are they hollow values that sound good but don’t really mean anything when it comes to how behaviors actually play out in the company? If you think racial equality is a good cause, does your own company reflect this in its hiring, for example? Is your board racially diverse?
You can’t, for example, run a Superbowl ad like Audi did, speaking about equal pay for women, when your own company’s record doesn’t fully demonstrate it. As we mentioned previously, consumers recognize insincerity instantly. It’s not worth risking cynicism, boycotting, or backlash if you can’t back up what you say you stand for with what you do throughout your corporation. Because sure, equal pay is a valiant thing to stand for—but if you want to sell cars because of it, you can’t only talk about it—you have to demonstrate you’re a leader in doing it too.
So before you flaunt your purpose-driven prowess, it’s smart to do research to ensure you have the market’s permission, become a B-Corp, or at the very least, ensure that everything you intend to say you believe in is already deeply reflected in your organization.