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Redefining Purpose in the Activist Era

If 2017 was the year brands embraced purpose, 2018 will be the year it is redefined.

The purpose brands and consumers have come to know is an emotive, consumer-forward, guiding “north star” for a company.

Driven by a tense political climate, divided country, and shifting consumer expectations, purpose in 2018 will be about activism.

Transparency and authenticity will set apart the “shouters” from the “doers,” the latter of which will discover and develop purpose within the company before activating stakeholders as voices of their movement.

We saw more brands attempting activism in 2017, to success and failure. Following President Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks immediately committed to hiring more immigrants. An act could have been viewed as controversial was seen as authentic and true to company values given Starbucks’ long-standing commitment to the issue.

Yet brands with a deeply integrated purpose fumbled: Pepsico’s ‘Performance with Purpose’ ethos was shamed by the Pepsi brand’s tone-deaf riot commercial. Audi completely missed with its Super Bowl soapbox racer commercial, advocating for female empowerment while maintaining a mostly-male executive team.

We asked the Purpose Collaborative, the world’s first and largest collective of purpose-first agencies, consultancies, and experts, what purpose-driven brand activism will look like in 2018. Their insights follow.

Activism will transform purpose from buzzword to action.

Consumers have long expected companies to do good for society. Today, they want to be active participants in a brand’s do-good work: empowered to make the lives of others better as well as their own.

Companies have shifted their approach from traditional CSR and cause marketing to a more engaged and demonstrative purpose. Yet, the more commonplace purpose becomes, the more innovative brands have to be to stand out.

“[Purpose] is on the cusp of being a commonplace term,” said the U.K.’s Henry Playfoot. “Authentically purpose-driven brands…need to push hard to prove that purpose, far from being marketing spin, is about reconfiguring the fundamentals of business to better serve people and planet.”

This call will come not just from consumers, but shareholders who realize the financial return that deep purpose integration can afford.

“There will be a boom in stakeholder pressure for companies to express their purpose in more social, environmental, and ethical terms,” said Stephen Jordan, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of iO Sustainability

In an age where almost everything can be politicized, companies on the leading edge will have to take the activist approach to solving those social, environmental, and ethical issues. Those that succeed will do so with a long-term, integrated approach — moving purpose from nice-to-have to critical for success. JUST Capital’s Just 100 explores the impact of such companies based on their progress against a consumer-driven set of issues, including workers’ rights, community impact, C-suite responsibility, environment, and others.

Just 100 leaders including IBM and Salesforce have a deeply integrated purpose. IBM’s Smarter Planet applies the company’s leading-edge technologies to “repair and prepare” the world’s economy through initiatives that accelerate job growth, address environmental challenges, and pioneer medical breakthroughs — all to benefit both society and IBM’s business growth. Salesforce’s 1–1–1 model not only applies to the way the company operates (channeling 1% of employee time, 1% of Salesforce profits, and 1% of products/services to good causes), but is a replicable open-source model that other companies are embracing.

Employees want more than a sense of purpose.

Employees have made it clear: they want to feel fulfilled at work through their personal purpose and that of the company. And they are critical to the successful integration and activation of a company’s purpose.

“True purpose integration has to start within the company, with employees and leadership, for it to resonate with consumers and produce financial results,” said Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE. “Starting with employees gives them the power to be the catalyst for change within the business. When they bring their purpose, and that of the company, to work each day, they create products and processes with the potential for social impact: empowering and activating communities, consumers, and their customers.”

Beyond purpose, employees want their companies to be activists: 57% of respondents in a 2017 Povaddo survey said that corporate America should play a more active role in addressing societal issues. They want their employer to use the company’s influence to “take a public stand and/or be more vocal.”

Like purpose, activism can pay off for a company. 45% of respondents said that a company’s actions on societal issues impact their employment decisions, and 62% would recommend their company as a place to work.

The success or failure of an activist company can rely on whether leadership listens to employees and gives them the power to lead the conversation. Employees are consumers themselves, and tend to be more grounded and connected to major social issues. They’re the “ground troops” and potential ambassadors living in a tumultuous world, and they may be best equipped to leverage the assets of their employer for progress.

Purpose will be a grounding rod for activist brands.

“Many brands in 2018 will be playing catch-up, keen to identify and share with the world what their brand stands for,” said Melissa Orozco, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Vancouver’s Yulu PR.

But in an era of fake news, consumers will take any opportunity to call foul. As skepticism pushes reason and empathy aside, it is imperative that brands back up their commitments.

“2018 has the potential to feel like tip-toeing in a minefield. Everything has the potential to be politicized. Virtually nothing is apolitical and non-partisan,” said Tom Burket, Senior Engagement Strategist at Haberman.

The idea of risk and reward perfectly captures the conundrum many companies will face in determining both what they stand for, and how they talk about it. Again, a deeply integrated purpose and track record of progress can reduce the level of risk brands face in speaking out: think of purpose as the grounding rod in a lightning storm society.

Continuing the topic of risk: Brands can’t stand up for an issue halfway. Consumers expect — and respect — the all or nothing angle. “An honest no-BS approach demonstrating transparency and candor can earn trust and respect,” said Burket.

Politics are becoming unavoidable, and that includes picking sides.

Pundits and laypeople have labeled our political climate roiling, unstable, and plain ‘scary’. Whether or not consumers choose to voice their own opinions, “brands that don’t take a position…will seem increasingly out of step with our times,” said Playfoot. “The era of business ‘neutrality’ is over. Decide what you stand for and stand up for it — or get left behind.”

Taking a stance on political issues is one thing, but doing so in a deeply divided nation and world multiplies risk as companies grapple with whether their values are alienating significant populations.

Companies are going to be asked to take sides more than ever between progressivism and conservatism,” said Jordan. “As such, they will have to decide if their purpose is progressive (Starbucks), conservative (Chick-fil-A), ‘purple’ (straddling the aisle), ‘third way’ (carving their own path), or very narrowly defined.”

The most dangerous route is often — perhaps surprisingly — attempting to bridge the gap. Unless the company offers products or solutions that actually bring people together, vocalizing themes of unity, harmony, and cohesiveness, this approach can be perceived as inauthentic. While Coke’s Open Happiness campaign makes consumers feel good, and has succeeded from a marketing perspective, it doesn’t tangibly bring people together — there’s no forum for constructive discussion, advocacy work, or movement building.

To be political, we return to the theme of having to do, and not just say.

Purpose will be global in vision, hyper-local in action, and amplified by coalitions.

Since our nation’s founding, change has been driven by grassroots movements. 2017 brought a resurgence of this approach, sparked by the millions-strong Women’s March and buoyed by a series of hyper-local gatherings, the most successful of which were organized and amplified at a national or global level.

The model holds true for brands seeking to drive change. With “the expectation for transparency and authenticity from brand policies and standards…stronger than ever,” said Orozco, grassroots activation will lend credibility and viral growth to the advancement of a company’s position.

Again, this brings risk. Brands need to be humble, taking the role of facilitator or convener to provide support in a way that puts its constituents front and center. The tremendous power that big business holds can unlock the networks and money that grassroots actors and organizers need to spark and sustain change.

That level of change can’t happen in a vacuum, nor will it happen through the efforts of one actor alone. Coalition-building will be critical to building a support network to advance a position and convene diverse and disparate voices.

Organizers of the Women’s March built a network of supporters from different backgrounds, races, political views, and yes, genders. Not only did this empower anyone to take ownership of the cause, but it lent credibility and authenticity to the movement.

2018’s leading issues will be…

Diversity and inclusion:

Long defined as a race and gender issue, diversity and inclusion will take a broader definition in 2018, turning to the issues of political division and underserved segments of the population.

“Equality will not only refer to gender and race but to equal opportunity for all (e.g. ableism, accessibility, and providing opportunities to underemployed communities like immigrants, refugees or formerly incarcerated people),” said Orozco.

Companies, listen up: this issue can provide tremendous opportunity to some of you. Take Gillette, a well-known consumer name that teamed up with experts to develop a razor specifically designed for caretakers of the elderly or disabled. Or Homeboy Industries, a Southern California food producer giving the gang-involved and formerly incarcerated jobs, training, and support to re-start their lives.

These brands are hitting the jackpot: standing up for an issue, integrating it in their core business model (employees, products, processes, etc.), and — the end all be all — making money.


The #MeToo movement, State Street Corporation’s buzzy but and controversial Fearless Girl statue, and the Women’s March have catapulted women not just into the spotlight, but into action.

“Women are fired up and will continue to drive the equality and social justice agenda,” said Laura Ferry, Founder of Good Company. “In 2018, they will mobilize as social movement, re-shape the culture, invest in each other and accelerate positive change on issues that impact women and girls.”

More women are taking C-suite roles at legacy companies. In March 2017, Michele Buck became Hershey’s CEO — the first in the 123-year-old company’s history. And more are starting their own companies, despite facing fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to obtain funding — in 2017, women-led companies received 14% less venture capital.

Women-led activism has two critical impacts: First, the ability to create a more equitable business landscape, and thus, society. Second, to embed purpose into both established and startup organizations. Women-founded companies more often include a social impact agenda in the core operating model, and they are proving that purpose pays.


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