Five years ago, as cause marketing and corporate citizenship had become widely accepted corporate strategies for giving back, vanguard brands were exploring ways to further deepen their engagement with society. Today, it’s well understood that without a healthy, sustainable society, we won’t have a world in which to do business. Tomorrow, we hope more companies choose to be heroes. And it starts with purpose.
To chart the path ahead, I tapped the Purpose Collaborative, the world’s first and largest collective of purpose-first agencies and experts, for its members’ 2020 predictions.
1. Business will be the hero
With the political world in tumult, businesses are poised to fill void that governments and the public can’t address alone. Increasingly, today’s companies have the will and wherewithal to lead the way in addressing urgent social and environmental issues.
“Corporations are stepping up to play a critical role in building a more prosperous and regenerative economy,” said Melissa Orozco, founder and CEO, of Yulu PR. “Global brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Tesla, and Patagonia are among those placing ‘social’ at the forefront of their enterprise—putting purpose alongside, or even ahead of, profit.”
2. Purpose will be validated
In 2019, the Business Roundtable made a groundbreaking announcement that the purpose of a corporation was no longer to just to serve shareholders, but also employees, communities, and society at large. Since then, we’ve seen a flood of companies working to adopt, evolve, or enhance their purpose beyond profits.
“Between the U.S. election, global unrest, tariffs, and climate change, among other urgent issues, 2020 is going to be a roller coaster of a year,” says Annie Longsworth, executive managing director of social impact and sustainability at RF Binder. “Companies and their employees will be easily distracted and pulled in a lot of directions. A well-established and integrated purpose can help keep you on track.”
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff echoed this sentiment in a recent New York Times op-ed, calling on business leaders to invest in a new wave of capitalism, one that places the value of people and the environment on par with profit. Finally, long-term social value is beginning to matter more than short-term gains.
3. But beware of purpose washing
“Purpose today is a buzzword. Only a few companies are able to have their purpose truly permeate internal rituals and processes, management, innovation, and the actual customer experience,” says Fabio Milnitzky, cofounder and CEO of IN.
Purpose is difficult to get right, and easy to get wrong. As more companies pursue purpose, not all will do so authentically. The biggest mistake? Rushing the process.
“Whatever you do, make purpose a long-term commitment,” says Marcus Peterzell, CEO and founder of the Passion Point Collective. “It’s not good for the brand to do a one-off. Do something long-term that creates value for everyone.”
Companies that take the time to deeply understand their DNA and relationship with society and build purpose-led strategies into operations are much more likely to win over consumers. Strategically identify an authentic purpose and don’t be too quick to find the answers.
4. Consumers will be purpose experts
As the adoption of purpose grows, it can be challenging for brands to stand out—and consumers are getting purpose fatigue. They aren’t as quick to trust claims of social responsibility, and can sense inauthenticity.
Millennials and Gen Z, especially, are educating themselves on what it means to be a purpose-driven company,” says Kristin Kenney, senior associate at Carol Cone On Purpose. “They invest the time in researching how products are made, how employees are treated, what the supply chain looks like, and weigh these options against price and convenience.”
Consumers not only pay attention to the nuances of how a company operates, but share that information with their networks. This provides added incentive for companies to be good citizens—their customers will turn elsewhere if they’re not.
5. Purpose will be directed at employees
A core reason for activation of purpose is the war for talent. People of all generations want to work for more than a paycheck. Organizations that link purpose to their employer brand strategy will attract and retain the strongest talent.
“We are noticing an increasing demand for more relevant and impactful employer brand propositions, both in terms of the promise as well at the actual employee experience,” says Milnitzky. Once drawn by ping-pong tables, kegs, and unlimited PTO policies, employees are now gravitating towards companies with a greater purpose than ‘show up and work hard.’ Many will even consider a pay cut to work for a purpose-led company.
“Find purpose initiatives that your employees are aligned with,” says Peterzell. “It’s important that your employees are behind the cause, so it’s authentic.”
6. Employees will be activists
Millennials and Gen Z employees won’t sit by the sidelines and watch injustice happen. Today, they can organize among themselves to create change.
“There will be many more examples of employees speaking out vigorously, as we saw with Wayfair, Amazon, Google and Uber,” says Phillip Haid, cofounder & CEO, Public Inc. “Private issues are now public. Companies must define their purpose to help guide their efforts.”
Purpose-led companies will listen to what their employees care about and respond accordingly. This bottom-up approach can demonstrate to consumers that a company has the best interests of its employees and communities at heart, engendering trust.
7. Consumers will expect companies to stand up
Beyond integrity in products and processes, consumers today want brands to take a stand on issues that matter.
“To win with a rising generation whose values are shaping the future of our world, brands must prove their purpose not only by speaking out on society’s most crucial issues, but by actively standing up for those previously ignored by our society and taking more accountability for the challenges we all face,” says Raphael Bemporad, founding partner at BBMG.
The days of a passive consumer who accepted the ‘you get what you get and don’t get upset’ mentality are past. Citizen consumers would rather not buy at all than spend on a product that doesn’t align with their values.
“Consumers are looking to companies to play a leading role in developing and implementing solutions,” says Shayna Samuels, cofounder and partner at Ripple Strategies.
8. Communications will evolve
“Being heard above the noise will be one of the biggest challenges in the coming year,” says Samuels. “Communicating that the purpose initiatives being pursued are meaningful, urgent, and designed to have real impact on people and the planet will be what breaks through.”
Companies with an authentic purpose, of course, will have a leg up—the stories almost tell themselves. Finding the right medium will be critical. More brands will turn to AR/VR, long-form branded content, user-generated storytelling, and experiential activations in the coming year.
“With the proliferation of video streaming networks in 2020, there will be an even larger platform to provide quality branded content that moves the needle for brands wishing to share the impact of their purpose driven campaigns,” says Alan Chebot, director and executive producer at Parallax Productions.
Most important: Inviting society into your story. By giving people a voice, companies can spark a movement greater than their own brand.
9. Companies will seek collaborators
No company exists in a silo. There are ever-expanding opportunities to partner with various organizations to develop purpose, tap external expertise, raise funds, and spur grassroots activation.
“Brands are collaborating with competitors more than ever for collective action to address global issues and improve industry standards. It’s about creating systemic and meaningful change,” says Orozco.
Companies are also partnering with NGOs in increasingly innovative ways. Rather than just cutting checks, companies are finding values-aligned partners and collaborating on solutions—think United Way and Salesforce’s partnership to develop Philanthropy Cloud.
“Nonprofits will step into cofounder and advisor roles to develop breakthrough sustainable products, services, and business solutions that support their missions and investment portfolios,” says Laura Ferry president of Good Company. “Nonprofits are subject-matter experts with the valuable knowledge and insights innovators and entrepreneurs need to build collaborative social and environmental impact solutions.”
10. Purpose will change society
The evolution of social impact from a “nice-to-have” philanthropic function to a true purpose-at-the-center model has the potential to solve the societal challenges of today and tomorrow. And Purpose Collaborative members and I believe it will. As more companies take this approach and commit to long-term positive societal impact, we will begin to see a sea change in both the role business plays in a prosperous society and the way that citizens interact with the brands they know and love.
I hope these 2020 predictions inspire you and your organization to use this next year to plan for 2021 and beyond. Lay the groundwork for purpose, evolve your purpose, or enhance it to have greater impact. Businesses have a tremendous opportunity to be the heroes we need. Will yours rise to the challenge?
The Purpose Collaborative is a global group of 40+ firms and subject matter experts, represented by 400+ professionals in 20+ countries, all developing breakthrough work to help organizations accelerate their social purpose. Founded by Carol Cone, considered the pioneer of purpose, Purpose Collaborative members are hand-selected based on their unique capabilities and prominence in the field.