You don’t have to be a Boomer or School of Rock fan to know this cultural trope: citadels of power and authority—like corporations, for instance—are “the Man” (therefore, not to be trusted). So, when the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer named corporations among the most trusted institutions, my first thought was that they’d won by default, given how others, particularly government and media, are currently perceived.

But it turns out that there are a number of converging trends behind the Edelman finding. One is that in this highly fractured cultural moment, corporate brands are simply better than many other institutions at uniting us—not just nationally but globally—around common human needs: a safe environment, gender equality, education, health, financial security.

Another factor is that in our hyper-connected and transparent world, satisfying consumer expectations now requires brands to be good from the inside out. People can see a brand’s behavior and be affected by it. Sometimes for good—as when brands provide inspiration, address painful cultural tensions or support their communities in measurable ways. And sometimes for ill—as when brands are seen as tax avoiders, environmental violators, openly mistreat employees or ignore the surrounding community.

Since brands now live in glass houses—one false move can be Googled forever—one way to avoid stones is to authentically out-behave.

Out-behaving on Purpose

One of the most powerful ways for brands to out-behave is to cultivate a culture of purpose from the inside out. Why? Purpose inspires the best in people, motivating them to work shoulder to shoulder, pooling discretionary effort toward something greater than themselves and toward the greater good.

At best, shared purpose closes the gap between the individual and the brand, allowing corporations to build stronger and more competitive internal cultures, greater loyalty among consumers, and good will from the public and potential recruits.

What this means for Brands

For all these reasons, we increasingly see brands competing not only on traditional functional benefits but on social purpose, a topic discussed in the Harvard Business Review article, “Competing on Social Purpose”. (link below)

On the ground with clients, we’ve seen a trend toward “purpose” moving from the periphery of the organization—corporate philanthropy, CSR initiatives—to the center. This is not only true for social-purpose natives like TOMs Shoes or The Body Shop whose products are intrinsically tied to purpose but also to social purpose immigrants. Siemens, for example, a diversified industrials business for 175 years, now positions itself as a Business to Society brand, focused on the credo that “companies only really succeed if they fulfill the needs of the society they work in.”

At AJ, we’ve recognized this trend. We’ve strengthened our capabilities and strategic approach to help clients build stronger, more sustainable, purpose-driven brand communities. Communities that put their purpose into practice and ultimately drive organizational growth.

For further insights on this topic, see Harvard Business Review “Competing on Social Purpose” October 2017; BBMG “Brand Purpose in Divided Times” October 2017; HBR “How an Accounting Firm Convinced its Employees they Could Change the World” October 2015.