Serving with Purpose: Brands Responding to Social Movements Should Start with Their Why


By Camille Nicita, President & CEO, Gongos, Inc.

The past year has been one of evolution and revolution. A powerful combination of social movements, the Covid-19 pandemic and an unprecedented election has further propelled a crusade of “woke capitalism,” wherein consumers expect brands to make progress alongside them in adapting to and acting responsibly in the changing world around them.

While the notion of companies serving through cause and purpose is not new, the repercussions of missteps are swifter than ever, with consumer sentiments about out-of-touch brands often shifting rapidly.

The implications are straightforward: As organizations strive to create value for customers functionally, emotionally and socially, they must stay true to their identity and embrace their corporate purpose as their compass.

Orienting Purpose With The Customer As The North Star

If a company’s purpose guides its every endeavor and informs and inspires all actions — including during historic times like the one we are in — it can’t be an afterthought. It must be carefully crafted and adapted to customers and their continuously evolving experiences with the brand. Customers are the lifeblood of any business; without them, it wanes.

Recent research, conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and sponsored by my company, points to the power of a customer-centric purpose: 92% of the HBR audience members surveyed reported that it outperforms a purpose not focused on the customer. Thus, it only makes business sense to develop an authentic strategy that resonates with the people at the heart of the brand, and then activate it. However, most organizations get stuck here. Only 38% of survey respondents said they saw their company’s customer-centric purpose reflected in employees’ mindsets and actions.

Establishing a corporate purpose that prioritizes the customer is foundational, but it is futile if not lived out in ways that are meaningful to the customer.

The Good And The Bad

Patagonia is one great example of a company with a customer-centric purpose ingrained within it. The outdoor clothing company is well-known for acting on the causes and social issues, such as environmental sustainability, that matter most to its customers. In late 2017, Patagonia actively stood against the Trump administration to protect Bears Ears National Monument.

Another great case in customer-centric purpose is that of Leesa, a mattress company. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the company acted on its why — “designing mattresses made for good” — in a manner that best met the moment. Hospitals were in need of more beds, so Leesa quickly pivoted to create bed kits and shipped them directly to hospitals.

On the contrary, Pepsi’s fumbled social justice commercial in 2017, featuring Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a can of soda to ease tension, can be used as a case study of an organization using out-of-touch advertising to try and connect with its audience instead of folding purpose into its core foundation and taking meaningful action.

Cultivating A Purpose-Driven Culture

Meeting the woke capitalism moment requires brands to do what they should always be doing: persistently pursuing a deep understanding of their customers’ wants and needs, and instilling that empathy into their everyday actions with enthusiasm and authenticity. Simply put, company culture is the mechanism for the manifestation of a customer-centered purpose. Embracing this reality empowers brands to make much more meaningful and sustainable connections with their customers than one-off ads and other superficial messaging.

So how exactly can organizations cultivate a culture that breathes life into their customer-centric purpose?

• Understand what customers value. Learning about your customer base is critical and requires active listening and observation. Set up processes to explore and understand what matters most to them. Achieving a corporate purpose is an unending pursuit, so create ways to capture customer thoughts, feelings and behaviors consistently. Treating them as human beings instead of data points and forging real relationships begins with empathy.

• Bring customers into the fold. Based on your deep understanding of your customers as humans, it is important to carefully decide how they fit into your purpose at any given moment and act accordingly. Remember, with woke capitalism’s impacts, customers can come and go in a minute. Continually reassessing their place in your purpose equation means that when current events inspire you to respond, you do so in the right ways — ways that take customers’ perspectives into account and authentically serve your purpose.

• Give resonance to the why. Embed your purpose throughout every facet of the organization by not only establishing your why, but also constantly reinforcing it and helping employees see their part in it. Constantly communicate why the company is responding as it is to the wider world context so teams feel invested in the actions you ask them to take. This means connecting the dots from employee activities to the functional, emotional and social outcomes desired by customers. And as the saying goes, actions are more powerful than words, so be sure to serve as an example by doing what you ask your teams to do.

• Recognize purpose-driven actions. Living out a customer-centric purpose requires emotional and material investment in your people. Don’t stop at helping your why resonate with them; offer meaningful, relevant recognition and rewards when they work toward it. No matter the packaging of the reward, it should encourage positive actions by driving personal motivation or team inspiration, and it should align with the unique culture of your company.

Change is constant. So too is the desirability of authenticity. These two truths highlight the importance of building a strong corporate identity — rooted in deep empathy for the customers you serve — to take heed of always. It’s the way to meaningful connections that will stand the test of time. Armed with a customer-centric purpose that is perpetually put into practice, your brand will be positioned to earn the ongoing trust and respect of consumers irrespective of the external forces at play.

As published in Forbes.