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How Motivating Is Your Company's Purpose?

Having a purpose doesn’t mean anyone cares about it.

How Motivating Is Your Company's Purpose?

[Photo: olaser/Getty Images]

Increasingly, the business world has embraced the need to have a purpose, to engage employees, make acclaimed marketing, and drive business results. As a result, many companies have expressed a purpose in some form, but no matter how emotive a mission or vision statement may be, it does not necessarily translate into people being motivated by your brand.

People’s perception of a brand’s purpose is highly subjective. How people experience brands in the world is not through mission statements; we observe how brands communicate and act, and we form perspectives on what they stand for.

[Photo: oksanaphoto/iStock]

My company, Enso, has conducted the Brand World Value Index, and we have found that while people can readily identify purpose in many companies, motivation varies significantly. In nationally representative research, we measured not only whether people could identify a purpose, but also whether it aligns with what they personally care about and whether they would actively support the brand around that purpose.

Purpose comes in many forms — from saving people money (e.g. Walmart), to saving time and effort (e.g. Amazon), to accelerating the shift to electric cars (e.g. Tesla) — and consequently, purpose varies significantly in its power to motivate.

Rather than create one definition for purpose, or test organizations’ carefully crafted mission statements, the research we conducted asked people whether they could identify a purpose (beyond making money) in a company, the extent to which that purpose aligned with their own values, and the extent to which that purpose is motivating to publicly support the company in achieving its purpose. We also asked the extent to which the purpose affects motivation to buy products and services from the company. We fielded this research with Quadrant Strategies, across a representative sample of the U.S. population.

[Photo: Agent_Nikita/iStock]

The results surprised us. People could identify a purpose beyond profit in many traditional companies, including McDonald’s, Walmart, and Coca-Cola. It’s possible the purpose people identify in those brands are things like "easy food," "cheap goods," or "fun."

But ask people if those companies’ purpose aligns with their own values, or if they would publicly support that purpose, and the answers change dramatically.

  • 76% of people can identify a purpose beyond profit in McDonald’s (ranking 2nd of 149 brands), but only 43% of people say that purpose aligns with their own values. And only 25% of people find that purpose motivating enough to publicly support the company in achieving its purpose (ranking 47th of 149 brands).
  • 71% of people can identify a purpose beyond profit in Walmart, but only 43% say that purpose aligns with their own values, and only 24% find it motivating enough to publicly support the company in achieving its purpose.
  • 60% of people can identify a purpose beyond profit in Volkswagen, but only 11% say it aligns with their own values, and only 2% find it motivating enough to publicly support the company in achieving its purpose (ranking 138th out of 149 brands).

So while those companies stand for something in the world, it doesn’t align with what people care about.

By looking at the proportion of people that would publicly support a company’s purpose, as a fraction of those that can identify a purpose, we’ve derived a metric of Purpose Motivation.

McDonald’s and Walmart have a similar Purpose Motivation of 33%. In other words, about one third of people that can identify any purpose in McDonald’s and Walmart find it motivating enough to support. That may be because their purpose is not clear, or because their purpose is not coming across to people through the companies’ communications and actions.

There is a very different story for some brands that are more meaningful to people, including Amazon, Annie’s Homegrown, Save the Children, and Seventh Generation.

  • 30% of people can identify Kind Snack’s purpose, beyond just making a profit, and 28% find it motivating enough to publicly support—a purpose motivation of 93%.
  • 70% of people can identify Amazon’s purpose, beyond just making a profit, and 52% find it motivating enough to publicly support—a purpose motivation of 74%.
  • 45% of people can identify Toms’ purpose, beyond just making a profit, and 28% find it motivating enough to publicly support—a purpose motivation of 60%.

Three quarters of people that can identify Amazon’s purpose will work alongside the company to achieve it.

Looking at the distribution of 149 brands by the two metrics, Awareness of Purpose and Active Support, reveals different opportunities for organizations.

Organizations with low awareness of purpose and low willingness to actively support (like Monsanto), need to more clearly define a motivating purpose in people's minds. Organizations with high awareness but low willingness to support (like Marlboro) have a similar challenge :  how to matter more to people. Companies in these categories have a fundamental breakdown, either in the extent to which they exist for any purpose beyond profit, or in people’s perception of that purpose. Either way, those companies have work to do to avoid being perceived as either meaningless or corporate pariahs (assuming they appreciate the importance of the broader world supporting their endeavors).

A third group of organizations—those with lower awareness of purpose but higher willingness to actively support (like Annie’s Homegrown, Kind, Seventh Generation)—need to consider measures to increase awareness to realize their potential. Those organizations at the top right—high awareness and high willingness to support—have the huge opportunity to work alongside people in service of shared success.

How should brands think about these findings? We believe Purpose Motivation is an important metric to look at when considering brand health. Our research shows a huge opportunity for brands: People, in large numbers, can identify purpose that aligns with their own values within brands, and are willing to publicly support that purpose. Given the rapidly increasing cost of acquiring attention through paid media, it’s important that brands’ ideas travel through culture because of the inherent value of those ideas to people. Research by Edelman has identified a clear link between brands’ and leaders’ communicated purpose and trust in companies, and research by Deloitte has demonstrated how important purpose is to employee engagement.

So purpose should not be a sideshow within organizations. Purpose is not at odds with shareholder value—our perspective is that purpose can drive shareholder value. But it’s not enough to articulate a purpose statement and move on. People need to be able to identify, and be inspired by, an organization’s purpose through all of the ways it shows up in the world—in communications, actions, products, its internal culture, and how people interact with its employees.

We encourage companies to ask people: What purpose do you see our company standing for? If there’s a gap between the company’s intended purpose and how people perceive it, identify where the breakdown is. And ask people if the company’s purpose, as they identify it, is motivating to them—would they publicly support it? If the answer is no, consider how it could be more motivating—what education, inspiration, or actions could meaningfully engage people in the brand's purpose? If the answer is yes, consider the opportunity to build a shared mission between your company and people: How might your company work with people to help propel shared success?

We believe that working with people around a highly motivating shared mission is the best way to scale both shareholder and social value. Motivated consumers, community members, and employees can create a virtuous cycle of success. Far from being something trapped in a seldom-considered mission statement, purpose should be central to how a company communicates and behaves, because it may be the most significant, sustainable, competitive advantage.

You can download the Brand World Value Index here.

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