Unless you’re living in a cave, you’ve surely seen how brands and companies are pursuing purpose. The Business Roundtable issued a statement in 2019 to encourage companies to support “a life of meaning and dignity” and that a company’s purpose should include meeting the needs of all its stakeholders. In France, in 2020, having a ‘raison d’être’, aka a purpose, became law [La Loi Pacte]. Not only does having purpose help tap into your team’s discretionary energy, done well it galvanizes stakeholders up and down the value chain. Moreover, studies show that, over time, brands with purpose provide substantially more shareholder return versus brands that don’t have one [HBR article on Conscious Capitalism and firms of endearment]. But is purpose absolutely necessary? Can all brands have a real purpose? The answer to both questions is no. There are plenty of brands that do fine without a purpose. Some industries are just too cut throat [e.g. investment banking] or ethically questionable [e.g. gambling] to bother with such lofty notions. Moreover, if you’re not serious about it, it’s advisable not to try purpose-washing. At the end of the day, a brand’s purpose is necessarily related to its context. And some brands are far more disposed to have powerful purposes.

What is your brand?

For many companies, the problem starts with not having a distinct brand. Not so many people truly grasp what makes a strong brand. As the entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Peter Thiel avows, brand is a concept he doesn’t fully understand. But he also knows that it’s a phenomenon that creates real value and uses it as one of the four key principles for his investments. It used to be the case that an external ad agency would be hired as the guarantor of the brand. Certainly, in my days at L’Oréal, where marketing teams were in constant flux, moving onto different brands inside the company portfolio, the agency of record would provide ‘stability’ to help keep the brand on message. However, building up a brand and finding one’s purpose is necessarily far more than communicating a marketing slogan or advertising campaign. A branding or marketing agency can do only so much.

From words to reality

If you haven’t yet figured out your brand’s purpose, it’s certainly possible that you might turn to external help. Cue the consultancy or agency. Depending on your level of maturity and/or genuine intention, there can be benefit in getting outside counsel. However, there are many challenges in using an external partner agency in crafting one’s purpose. On the one hand, there’s a need to come up with the right phrase for your purpose. Boiling it down to the most concise version takes a good deal of wordsmithing and an agency can help in that process. On the other hand, embedding purpose into the organization and through the value chain is by definition up to operations. For purpose to be most effective, it needs to move from words on a page to being understood and experienced by all parts of the value chain.

How to Find the Best Agency for a Brand with Purpose? -For purpose to be most effective, it needs to move from words on a page to being understood and experienced by all parts of the value chain. Share on X

Aligning purpose with values & behavior

For an existing business, with a workforce already in place, that is looking to gain purpose, there is an added level of complexity. First, the employees are a valuable — even essential — source of information as they have a collective understanding of the brand’s de facto values. To be effective, you must involve and integrate the employees in the process. Secondly, there is a deeper work to ensure that there is alignment at a personal level. At a minimum, are the C-suite executives true believers? And, more broadly, are the employees personally aligned with the company values? Each employee must be able to identify with and relate to the company’s purpose and values to ensure their fullest integrity. 

Walking the talk

When looking for the right partner, many agencies talk up a good game. But I frequently find it’s a case of the poorly shod cobbler. Many agencies might be happy to take on the business of crafting your purpose, but do they have a true purpose themselves? Just as distributors too often have to rely on the brands they carry as a proxy for their own brand personality, agencies are reliant on the clients they serve to be a proxy for their reputation. There are now many agencies who describe themselves as focused on delivering purpose. But which partner to choose? Do agencies that work on client purpose need to have their own purpose? Should they not walk the talk? Being pragmatic, an agency that has successfully delivered against the brief of creating a powerful purpose should be sufficient. However, I think it would be even more powerful if the agency itself knew how to create and live its own intrinsic purpose. What that means, in essence, is that creating purpose for others is too abstract. To have a bona fide purpose, it must answer the two following questions for itself:

  1. How would the world be worse off if you (your brand) didn’t exist?
  2. How does your purpose enhance the lives of all the key stakeholders along your value chain?

Looking about, I’ve found many agencies that have put purpose at the center of their business. Here’s a short list of agencies based in the UK:

  • ABA Design – Building brands with purpose
  • Good Agency – A purpose-driven strategy and creative agency
  • Growth Animals – Your ethical growth marketing partner
  • People-Made – Bringing brand and culture together as one
  • Purpose – We build brands that stand out, connect and prosper; brands with substance.
  • Purpose Athlon Media – We are team purpose. Inspiring customers. Engaging audiences. Driving results.
  • 23Red – To create purposeful work that transforms people’s lives

After a scan of these agencies’ sites, it’s clear that some are fully invested in purpose themselves, while many settle for pushing and promoting the client brand’s purpose. The former might be a B Corp and have its own deeply rooted sense of purpose. The latter will be distinctly less rigorous and think that investing in a charity is tantamount to “having purpose.” As ever, agencies know how to talk up a good game. But can they deliver for you?

Selecting the right partner agency

I believe that there are three things that a brand should evaluate when it comes to choosing its partner agency to help craft and implement purpose:

Photo on unsplash.com by Tim Hüfner
  1. To what extent are you — as a company and executive team — committed to purpose? Take a look at the two questions above and, with a strong dose of self-awareness, establish to what extent purpose is to be prioritized and embedded throughout the organization. As Ross Stoddard wrote in his thoughtful Forbes article, “Does Your Agency Pass The ‘Good’ Test? Four Types Of Purpose-Driven Agencies,” you’ll want to align yourselves with the agency as a function of your own ambition. For example, do you have a shared “why”?
  2. To what extent is the agency able/willing to show purpose being driven throughout its clients’ organization? A purpose cannot be limited to a marketing claim, ad campaign or single event. As I like to say, it must live inside-out the organization and be melded into the fabric of the business.
  3. To what extent does the agency have its own purpose? The point here is that a serious purpose must be beyond helping customers and turning a profit. Helping others to have a purpose is nice, but not enough. Ask the agency to what extent they have turned down business because it was not aligned with their purpose.

Being purposeful and profitable is absolutely essential, since a company that’s not profitable serves no purpose. Having the right partner that’s aligned with your purpose is a most useful connection for your brand/company on its journey toward purpose. At the end of the day, purpose is only a journey, not a destination.

How to Find the Best Agency for a Brand with Purpose? -Being purposeful and profitable is absolutely essential, since a company that's not profitable serves no purpose. Share on X

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