Thoughts from our Corporate Purpose Summit
If you think corporate purpose is a short-term fad, the message from our 2023 Corporate Purpose Summit is that it’s time to think again.
‘It’s the biggest business opportunity over the next ten years, Sarah Gillard, chief executive of A Blueprint for Better Business, told the assembled group of in-house corporate communications professionals.
Millennials and members of Generation Z are not simply voicing support for improving society and the environment because it’s what their friends do, she said.
‘They genuinely want to interact with organisations that care about the same things they do and find it very difficult to do so. It may be the biggest business opportunity the world has ever seen.’
While creating value for society, trying to solve the planet’s problems and generating positive impact involve actions that are not aimed at generating immediate direct business profits, she said that may well end up being the result over a longer duration because it prompts innovations aimed at meeting changing consumer demands.
Turning purpose into actions
Jenny Scott, partner at Apella Advisors, admitted that purpose has ‘acquired a little bit of baggage’.
‘It’s very easy to write it off as virtue signalling,’ she added. ‘It’s often used as a fig leaf for other actions. The profit dynamic tends to reassert itself in difficult times, such as a recessions, war and cost of living crisis.’
Amidst all this, it’s easy to write off corporate purpose as ‘woke,’ but Jenny said businesses should use their ‘extraordinary convening power’ to bring people together to create the conditions for deep listening and dialogue grounded in and guided by a strong purpose.
Reorienting a business around a stated purpose then involves building trust and understanding, revealing blockages and enabling genuine collaboration and cooperation to take necessary actions.
‘It’s not about the chief executive sweeping in and saying what everybody has to do,’ she said. ‘It’s about everyone taking responsibility for empowerment and co-creation. That strengthens the collaboration muscle until it becomes normal.’
Elevating the S in ESG
A lively panel discussion moderated by Jonathan Chandler, founder of Tilton Consultancy, examined how to ensure that social impact is given as much attention as managing environmental impact.
For Russ Brady, director of group communications at The Co-operative Group, it’s about embedding social change in the heart of an organisation. His food to funeral services mutual has an advantage here, having been founded for this purpose 179 years ago.
However, this legacy was threatened in 2014 when former Co-op Bank chairman and lay preacher Paul Flowers was embroiled in a drugs scandal that led him to be nicknamed the ‘crystal Methodist’.
‘We’ve got our mojo back over the last five or six years,’ said Russ. ‘I feel very fortunate and privileged that we have a core set of values and principles which are enshrined in what the Co-op stands for. But it’s not something you can take for granted. It’s something you’ve got to absolutely make relevant to today and the society we live in.’
For Sophie Sterling, business development and partnerships director at recruitment and training provider PeoplePlus, social impact is about being authentic and recognising the barriers to people being able to achieve sustainable employment, which can include drug and alcohol addiction and homelessness. PeoplePlus strives to make a difference here by connecting those in need with specialist help. ‘Our social value is about harnessing the power of the collective to really help those individuals,’ she said.
Yogesh Chauhan, director of ESG at customer relationship management platform group HubSpot, defined the social dimension of ESG for his company in two ways: building resilience so the company can be around for the long term and adding social value to what it does.
‘It’s about what we can do to bring about an extra dimension to how we operate as a company,’ he said. ‘HubSpot’s purpose is to build a company that future generations will be proud of.’
Avoiding purpose washing
Amy Chappell, insights lead for PR and media solutions provider Vuelio, examined the perils of words and actions failing to connect. Calling purpose-washing the ‘quieter, elder brother of greenwashing,’ she said it had a similar definition, seeking to gain from communicating intentions that are not backed up with genuine action. Woke-washing was a further variation, describing social consciousness that does not have substance.
‘Purpose-washing risks undermining authenticity by calling out tokenism within organisations,’ she said. ‘Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of make them cry, make them buy. It’s about action in the world,’ she said.
When correctly accused of purpose-washing, Amy advises organisations to admit to it quickly, produce remedies, stick to a clearly defined set of communications through a single course of information and put into practice lessons learned from previous purpose-washing scandals.
‘Our case studies show that not only does this response neutralise negative content; it results in less content overall about a particular scandal than there would have otherwise been,’ she said.
Purpose in a cost-of-living crisis
Matt Carter, founder of market research firm Message House, highlighted research showing that purpose is now resonating more with over-45s, as well as Millennials and Generation Z.
However, the cost-of-living crisis presents a problem, with consumers and employees under pressure and corporates having to cut back.
‘Change communications without purpose will fall flat,’ he said. ‘Organisations should ask whether their corporate purpose is still fit for purpose. Is it credible and true to how they act in practice?
‘Is it appealing? Does it talk about the things that people want to see happen in the world and is it actionable? Are you making decisions in the cost-of-living crisis that are based on your purpose? If not, then what’s the point?
‘Having a purpose that’s lived is a way of insulating your company from the moments where you have to make a difficult decision. Your purpose needs to be beyond the every-day. It’s your reason for existence. It’s your north star. Purpose is the thing you focus on to keep your bearings.’