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Don't Fake Your Corporate Purpose

June 13, 2022 Leadership
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

My first paid job that didn't entail working for the family business or doing odd jobs like paper routes and mowing lawns was at a local restaurant chain called Burgerville. For many of my classmates, that place was also where they got their first work experience.

More than 20 years later, I still regularly take my family there. While some people may avoid going to a place where they flipped burgers and witnessed the inner workings, Burgerville is different.

The company works with local farmers and features in-season specials like Oregon hazelnuts and Walla Walla sweet onions. They use 100% wind power to power their restaurants. They compost food and paper waste. They serve customers on bicycles at the drive-thru because, well, it's Portland. Their workers were early in the unionization trend and ratified the first contract at a fast food restaurant.

Eating at Burgerville often ends up being more expensive than at other fast food restaurants, and the place certainly isn’t perfect. But Burgerville has a mission and purpose that can’t be faked. The company has spent decades building a business around sustainability and local food. It’s an important part of the strategy — and it's what keeps us coming back.

Purpose Isn't Built in the Marketing Department

Just a few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article on the importance of purpose for the 400 brands under the Unilever umbrella. In my perspective, a lot of what was covered didn’t pass the sniff test.

The focus on purpose at Unilever is the brainchild of CEO Alan Jope. When he took the helm of the organization, Jope told investors: “We’ve organized all of our priorities in the company around three very deeply held beliefs: that brands with purpose grow, that companies with purpose last, and that people with purpose thrive.” Purpose was going to be part of the language at Unilever going forward.

Jope isn’t some outsider bringing new ethos into the conglomerate. On the contrary, he’s spent nearly 40 years at Unilever. While Unilever has been historically active on social issues like animal testing, carbon emissions and waste reduction, giving every brand a purpose that extends outside the organization was a new undertaking. 

It hasn’t gone universally well. For example, there’s the story of an ice cream brand spending hours trying to find purpose in brainstorming sessions full of marketers. That’s not where good purpose comes to fruition. Unilever brand Axe body spray tried to shed its sexually charged, often tone-deaf messaging by encouraging people to shed traditional notions of masculinity. But this went counter to two decades of advertising that came before it. As a result, their market share predictably dipped, and the company is now trying to find some middle ground. 

Employees and investors aren’t happy with this initiative. By forcing a purpose on brands that simply weren't created with purpose in mind, Unilever tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. In the process, some of these brands lost track of the other things that matter to customers — like the product or good customer service.

For employees, the experience of trying to adjust market perceptions and save a sinking ship isn’t great either. But it didn’t have to be this way. 

Related Article: Organizational Gaslighting

Finding Real Purpose

Not all Unilever brands suffered, however. Some had a headstart. And it shows. Take Dove as an example. Their early campaign around body positivity was organically developed in 2004 and extended over time. They started with a small footprint and gradually grew that purpose into what Dove stands for today: making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety. 

Because of this work and consistency, it doesn’t seem out of place for that company to advocate for young people to detoxify their social media feed from harmful beauty advice. They don’t come off as phony when they promote legal protections for natural hairstyles. Maybe most importantly, their purpose is related to their product offerings. In fact, that purpose guides the types of beauty products the company chooses to offer. For example, Dove doesn’t offer anti-aging products. Instead, it positions its products as “pro age” and “age embrace" as part of its definition of beauty.

Because of this consistency, employees have a clear sense of what is right and wrong — what works and what doesn't. They can also push for change when the purpose isn’t being adhered to as well as it should.

Related Article: Why LinkedIn Is the One Good Social Network

Purpose and the Bottom Line

The idea of a brand having a purpose and setting the goalposts by it shouldn't be based on the profits that can be made from jumping on a bandwagon. Consumers — and employees — see right through this stuff. 

Purpose must be authentic and aligned to the company's offering. Purpose isn’t an either-or proposition. Dove can have its cake and eat it, too. Their sales grew 8% in 2021, outpacing Unilever’s average by nearly two-times. Jope and the rest of the Unilever leadership would love to have brands like Dove that they can build off of, but you can’t simply copy-paste the approach. We found that out with Axe Body Spray. 

Organizations have to think about purpose as a long-term initiative, one where employees, consumers and stakeholders align. When purpose is faked or not meaningful, it loses its value. Might as well just forget it and focus on something else — anything else.

About the Author

Lance Haun lives life at the intersection of people, work and technology. He's currently a practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy and a contributor for Reworked and ERE.net.

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