When does a purpose become a social purpose?

It's a question of authenticity, says Zone's director of social purpose, Jo Shaw, who has three important truths to share...

Granary Square
Social Purpose

Check the 'About us' page of many corporate websites and you'll be greeted with a wealth of carefully considered words about the company's vision, purpose, values, goals, ambitions, mission statement and so on. And now there's a newish kid on the block – social purpose. There have been numerous articles on how a purpose beyond profit is the direction of travel and I for one believe it’s true.

The stats back it up – Harvard Business Review reports that 87 per cent of businesses believe they perform best over time if their purpose goes beyond profit, while in Edelman’s good purpose study, 89 per cent of clients believe a social purpose-driven company will deliver the highest quality products and services.

A social purpose is one that guides a brand to make a positive impact in society while also delivering long-term business growth. But let’s not add to the confusion of corporate jargon or tie ourselves in knots about terminology – we’ve been working in this area for more than a decade, so let’s share three important truths we have learned:

1. A social purpose is just a type of purpose.

You’d hope most businesses have a purpose, a reason for setting up the business and a sense of direction to guide decision-making. For some, this purpose has an altruistic motivation at its heart.

Take two automotive businesses, Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Tesla’s purpose is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” – something that clearly has a value to the wider global society: a social purpose. Mercedes-Benz’s, on the other hand, is “to become the world’s most renowned centre for customer service in the automotive sector”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a clear purpose that can feed into clear strategic goalposts and help employees of every level and discipline strive for excellence – whether driving innovation in R&D or providing salespeople with motivation on the showroom floor. But it doesn’t benefit the wider society. It is a purpose; it isn’t a social purpose.

2. It’s OK not to have a social purpose.

You can still be a very good, ethical, successful business without one. If your business has not been founded with a social purpose baked in, it’s very hard to authentically retrofit one, so don’t attempt to. John Lewis is a good example of this. Its purpose is “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”. John Lewis is not trying to solve societal problems; rather, it focuses on its employees, tirelessly putting its ‘partners’ at the centre of decision-making and subsequently has become famous for its ethics and culture, which has undoubtedly driven brand loyalty.

3. A social purpose has the biggest potential impact for society and your business growth when it sits at the heart of three things.

A genuine societal problem, a problem that a lot of people (your customers and potential customers) care about and a problem that your business has genuine credibility to try to solve.

So let’s take a look at a few, are they a social purpose or just a purpose? How authentic do they feel?

Walgreens Boots Alliance: We help people across the world lead healthier and happier lives

Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world 

Aviva: Free people from fear of uncertainty, allowing them to get on and lead their lives

Google: To organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful

Novo Nordisk: Driving change to defeat diabetes and other serious chronic conditions

It's a subjective debate, and the reason why we have to think about social purpose as a spectrum. I believe for your purpose to be a social purpose it needs to solve a societal problem that your customers experience directly or deeply care about. Figuring out how to activate this social purpose in an authentic way that clearly links to what you do as a business is how you reap the rewards.