Thirty summers ago, fresh out of cap-and-gown and eager to save the world, I accepted a job in the Pittsburgh office of the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller.
The primary account I worked on was Union Carbide, which just a few months earlier had been responsible for the tragic gas leak in Bhopal, India that killed 3,000 people. My big project was to produce a video touting the benefits of their chemical agent, Aldicarb, which was under fire as one of the “dirty dozen” pesticides being used on U.S. potato crops; it would eventually be banned by the EPA.
I didn’t sleep well that summer.
So not surprisingly, I didn’t last there for very long. By the fall of 1985, I moved to Boston and started a new job with a small firm called Cone & Company which, under the leadership of Carol Cone, was already beginning to earn a stellar reputation for its work on the opposite end of the consulting spectrum from what I had experienced – doing cause- and mission-driven work that did, indeed, carry forward the save-the-world torch I had already tossed to the ground. Hence, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was there at the start of the Purpose Revolution.
It is a revolution that has ushered in a sea change in business strategy during our lifetimes.
Think about it. For centuries, profit had always been the primary – and often the lone – driving force for business. The bottom line was the bottom line. The end justified the means. Companies largely operated behind closed doors, their motives and even their actions often cloaked in mystery. The seemingly benevolent dictum that guided most organizations in 20th century America was “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” but the reality was that business strategy rarely ever focused on anything except the business itself.
But slowly, quietly at first and growing noisier with time, forces of change were already at work beneath the surface of society.
It had begun, perhaps, when the convulsions of the 1960s planted seeds of doubt that business and government were actually acting for the greater good. Then environmental tragedies, from DDT to Bhopal to the Exxon Valdez, and the growing environmental movement they engendered, left us concerned about human impacts on the planet and worried what we would leave to future generations.
Carol and her team were quick to realize that business is what had gotten us into this morass, and business was likely to provide the only way out. So gradually, with visionary programs like the ones that supported Ronald McDonald House Children’s Charities, or that paired Rockport with fitness walking and Reebok with the Human Rights Campaign, she helped some of the more progressive companies begin to shift their profit-centric strategies to more nuanced approaches – approaches that elevated protection of the planet and the people to a nearly equal plane with that of the pursuit of profit. It wasn’t so much a sudden epiphany as a dawning new reality: values were not incompatible with value! Indeed, they could actually be supportive of it, and integrated with it.
Those were heady times, and seeing the possibilities inspired me to go on to work for other feel-good organizations, such as Whole Foods Market, Discovery Channel, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, and Zipcar. I still wanted to save the world.
Certainly the continuing Purpose Revolution in the 1990s and early 2000s engendered some hope and a general belief that humankind in general, and business in particular, was moving into more enlightened times. Yet despite all of the “mission statements” and “corporate giving” and “cause marketing” programs that I and other foot soldiers in that revolution bolted onto the existing business strategy, it seemed like there were always setbacks. Climate change, globalization, racial unrest, the drug trade, human rights abuses, 9/11, and the Great Recession all served as stern reminders that there are still massive problems to solve and no obvious solutions within the purview of policy, law, or even the ancillary support offered by charities, religion, or NGOs. And whenever budget became an issue, our feel-good programs were the first to go.
Since then, we have seen a more fundamental cultural shift with the adoption of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) programs that extend beyond just a company’s marketing or philanthropic efforts, touching operations, human resources, and practically all facets of the company. “Sustainability,” “green,” “impact,” and “purpose” all entered the corporate lexicon in the past 10 years or so, and began to penetrate consumer consciousness, too. Moreover, the digital revolution and widespread access to the Internet have at last begun to illuminate the inner-workings of business, making them increasingly transparent; power has shifted from companies to everyday citizens, who can now make or break brand reputations on their own. And with that, the age-old bottom line has begun to blossom into something far more profound: the triple-bottom-line, balancing profits, planet, and people.
All of which is very encouraging.
But the Purpose Revolution is far from over, and the transformation from feel good to do good to be good is incomplete. Indeed, we now seem to have entered a stage in which purpose has what might be deemed a marketing problem. Because while study after study has shown that the overwhelming majority of consumers – more than 90% – want to do business with companies that share their values, only a fraction of those consumers truly understand what the concepts of sustainability, greenness or CSR truly mean, and fewer still have any faith in business or any real belief that their beloved brands are doing a good job of engaging them.
So there is still much work to be done. The Purpose Revolution must now become more relevant to consumers, striving for greater authenticity and more visceral, emotional connections. And the only way for that to truly happen is for it to continue its inevitable progression from the periphery of a company’s consciousness right into the heart of the organization. Purpose must go from bolt-on to buy-in, from top-down to outside-in, at once authoritative and authentic. Participation is no longer optional, the lofty realm of only a few progressive and enlightened companies – it is a mandate. For as we have seen, no company is truly too big to fail, and even a century or more of history and profits is no guarantee of the continuation of success, or even of continuation at all. In a society increasingly influenced by the “Millennials” – the 25% of the population born and raised in a world of social and political upheaval, economic gyrations, global terrorism, business at Internet speed, marketing skepticism, social media, a profound social conscience, $1.3 trillion in spending/earning power, and the very real prospect of being the first generation that will fare worse than its predecessor – businesses must stand for something beside profits, or they will cease to stand at all.
How fitting, then, that 30 years after the fitful start to my career, I have now come full circle and once again joined forces with Carol Cone as part of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE. Her “revolutionary” work throughout these last three decades has been exemplary, and now, at last, the times seem to have caught up with her. It is time for purpose to prevail.