Purpose 2.0: three rules for 2020 and beyond

2019 was the year the world stood up and said ‘purpose’. But as a new decade dawns, the purpose landscape is evolving as quickly as it entered the common vernacular. Here’s our take on how to navigate the challenges – and reap the rewards.

There’s no doubt that 2019 saw an increased expectation that brands and businesses should behave more responsibly and purposefully than ever. And it is being validated more than ever; most recently highlighted at Davos 2020 as a core factor in the move towards a ‘reset on capitalism’.

But the path to purpose is a tough landscape to navigate, with many businesses facing huge challenges trying to please their many stakeholders: from the groundswell of investor pressure; retailer demands that will change entire supply chains; thought-challengers like Greta Thunberg who put “clever accounting” and “creative PR” on millions of agendas; and the many consumers who have lost patience with purpose/green-washing and profiteering.

But becoming a purposeful business or brand is not impossible, and at its best it is a powerful tool that can drive reputational success and sustainable growth, navigate global instability, and solve for some of our most challenging global issues.

Here’s our three rules for getting it right in 2020 and beyond.

  1. Make ESG essential:

Environmental and social issues are no longer separate in the minds of stakeholders, and the brands and businesses who address both are the ones who’ll win.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has called purpose “the engine of long-term profitability”, and with ESG reporting predicted to become commonplace, if not mandatory, in the coming years, the balance of purpose and profit has never been so crucial.

Unilever’s Dove use a central Purpose of ‘creating a positive experience of beauty’ to cover off both social and environmental issues: socially, by driving positive self-confidence in women and girls through more inclusive advertising and education via the Dove Self-Esteem Project; and environmentally through their commitment and actions that will mitigate the use of 20,500 tonnes of virgin plastics annually by 2025.

  1. Do what you say (and measure it):

No longer will the commitment to ‘go on the journey’ pass muster. As consumers make increasingly drastic commitments to curb climate change, such as veganism, quitting air travel and choosing not to have children; they’ll expect to see action by businesses and brands to match.

Measurement has traditionally lived in the B2B space, but with consumer trust continuing to decline, quantifying your commitments is now crucial in staving off accusations of hypocrisy. That means understanding what you are trying to achieve, agreeing how best to measure it, tracking it consistently, validating results externally and reporting them transparently.

Great examples are Oatly, who took their bold ‘ditch milk’ positioning and translated it into their sustainability reporting comms, summarising their performance for 2018 as “Slightly worse than last year!”.

  1. Collaborate with the competition

Being a purpose-driven business or brand is a fantastic start, but as governments alone fail to solve our world’s greatest challenges, the importance for public:private collaboration will be more crucial than ever.

Business partnerships aren’t a new thing, they have existed successfully for years with programmes such as the Toilet Board Coalition, the Paternity Leave Corporate Taskforce, and RE100. But the crucial change is that businesses and brands who normally compete on everything from innovation to market performance, are turbo-charging their purpose efforts and finding more efficient solutions by partnering on issues such as plastics, diversity, public health and carbon reductions.

Take packaging as an example: the innovation and investment required for brands to create less wasteful packaging is huge, but through mutual collaboration through the likes of TerraCycle Loop, the cost and time it takes to bring solutions to market is far less.

The path to post-2020 purpose isn’t easy, but the pay-off can be immense when you get it right. If you’re looking to find a more purposeful journey forward for your business, get in touch with one of our purpose experts at hellolondon@mullenlowesalt.com.