Some entrepreneurs set out from day one to make the world a better place. Most don’t. The majority are simply looking to generate income, rather than actively contributing to a better and fairer world. Anita Roddick was among the few entrepreneurs who started a business with both in mind. In 1976, she opened The Body Shop in Brighton, UK, with just 15 products. She set out to redefine beauty and promote a fairer deal for everyone in the supply chain, including animals that were tortured for cosmetics testing. Her philosophy was that “business shapes the world. It is capable of changing society in almost any way you can imagine.”

The Body Shop was sold to L’Oréal in 2006 for £652 million, and upon Roddick’s death the following year, her entire wealth was bequeathed to charitable causes.

Today, many organizations, both large and small, are recognizing the power of purpose. Not only can it improve the world, but it can also supercharge many areas of a business.

Recently, a client of mine, a global corporation headquartered in the southern United States with operations on every continent, approached my creative agency, Purple Asia, to help unite its disparate and sometimes disconnected silos by instilling a sense of shared purpose. The corporation had grown rapidly due to acquisition, which meant they were trying to navigate different corporate cultures as well as demographic backgrounds. Our goal was not to invent a purpose for the company but to identify the spark of inspiration that may have been sidelined or forgotten in the day-to-day struggle to deliver shareholder value and positive cash flow. This spark often lies with the founder or founders, even if they are no longer directly involved in the business. In the case of our recent client, the chairman had quietly created a foundation that

supports many charitable activities around the world. There is no website, no fanfare on the corporate site, and very little reporting on the activities of the foundation around the world. This was the potential opportunity that Purple Asia was looking for to help the company unite around a collective purpose.

But finding a great shared purpose is just the beginning. To unite a large organization, you need action. One can’t simply join a purpose, but one can join a movement. Therefore, our most vital task is to take a purpose and translate it into a movement that everyone can believe in and be a part of.

REI, a successful cooperative selling outdoor products, provides an excellent case study in this regard. The company’s purpose is to get people outdoors to enjoy nature and an active lifestyle. Like almost all retailers, REI used to participate in Black Friday every year, a day when massive discounts are offered to spark pre-Christmas sales. The company realized that forcing their employees to work indoors and customers to go to stores was contrary to their core business purpose. So, they canceled Black Friday and gave their entire company the day off so that they too could get outdoors. The PR interest generated by a large retailer behaving counter-intuitively created a movement with an impact far beyond their expectations. The higher purpose of pushing back against mindless consumerism was embraced by millions as people went hiking, climbing, and biking instead of exercising their credit cards on Black Friday.

Seeing the success of the campaign, other retailers followed REI’s example, and thousands of people took to the outdoors on Black Friday, sharing their family time and adventures on social media, creating a far-reaching retail-madness backlash movement. REI has since built on the movement and is now not only a champion of getting outdoors but has gained respect as a retailer with genuine values and respect for its customers and employees. As a co-operative with many deep convictions around sustainability, equity for access to the outdoors, and responsible consumerism, REI already had a great platform as a purpose-led business, but it wasn’t until they created a movement that thousands could actively join that their message really took flight.

The REI case study gives us a couple of important things to think about. While many businesses have been working on “finding their why” at a business level—REI is about getting people outdoors; Expedia is “bringing the world within reach”; Mondelez International seeks “to empower people to snack right”—a few have managed to discover their higher purpose and have dedicated their efforts and resources to harnessing the power it brings.

When a movement extends beyond the staff and customer base of the brand, its positive effects are multiplied exponentially.

To see how profound and powerful those effects can be, let’s examine the most high-profile and extraordinary example of purpose-led business strategy in the world today – Patagonia.

Patagonia was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, an avid rock climber and environmentalist. The company emerged from Chouinard Equipment, which specialized in manufacturing reusable, high-quality steel pitons. Recognizing the need for durable and functional outdoor apparel, Chouinard expanded the product line to include clothing, marking the beginning of Patagonia.

Patagonia’s mission is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Patagonia has consistently demonstrated its commitment to environmental stewardship through a range of initiatives and achievements:

1% for the Planet: Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged to donate 1% of sales or 10% of pre-tax profits, whichever is greater, to environmental causes. This commitment gave rise to the 1% for the Planet initiative, which encourages other companies to do the same.

Sustainable Supply Chain: Patagonia focuses on transparency and sustainability in its supply chain, using recycled materials and organic cotton in its products.

Worn Wear Program: This program encourages customers to repair, reuse, and recycle their gear, reducing waste and promoting a more circular economy.

Don’t Buy This Jacket Campaign: In 2011, Patagonia ran a provocative ad in The New York Times, encouraging customers to think twice before making a purchase and highlighting the environmental cost of consumerism.

One notable example of Chouinard’s outspoken activism is his “Vote the Assholes Out” campaign, which began as a label sewn into the waistband of Patagonia’s stand-up shorts.

In September 2022, Yvon Chouinard and his family gave away the entire corporation, valued at an estimated USD3 billion, to a foundation dedicated to the reversal and mitigation of climate change. The collective expects to donate around USD100 million per year to these activities. The company website was updated to say “Earth is now our only shareholder.”

Patagonia’s case is extraordinary and extreme perhaps, but collectively if more businesses commit to the triple bottom line (People, Profits, Planet) via the application of purpose-led brand strategy we may achieve much more than just creating shareholder value. [C]

Purple Asia has been helping companies with branding and strategic communications since 2002. For a free initial consultation call Matt at 090 302 9898

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Tim Burrill
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