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Even before the unforeseen events of 2020, brands were beginning to acknowledge the need for more authentic relationships with consumers. Now, the pandemic and historic social movements are amplifying the importance of brands’ deeper meaning in the world, including the connections they make with those they serve.
In the recent past, frivolous attempts to create connections have led corporations down the path of reactionary communications. Efforts to outwardly appear in touch made them actually look out of touch. Take the poorly received 2017 Pepsi “social justice” commercial, which largely did more harm than good.
Now, with the emergence of woke capitalism, consumers are less forgiving of such brand missteps. They are demanding new levels of authenticity. This means companies must take a real stand — rooted in their primary purpose — for customers and the causes they care about.
The customer at the core
Today, having a corporate purpose is as integral as ever. But not just any purpose — one that focuses on the customer. And if it is not engrained and acted upon, it will fall flat.
In fact, 92% of executives feel a customer-centric company purpose delivers better business benefits than a purpose not centered on the customer, according to recent research. Unfortunately, only 38% say their company has a customer-centric purpose that is deeply embedded in the mindsets and actions of employees.
To be effective, a company’s purpose should manifest beyond marketing — in employee experiences, customer experiences and products. It should be treated as a timeless truth that every decision points back to. And, in unconditionally honoring their reason for existence, brands benefit from clarity, confidence and meaningful connections with customers, no matter the climate.
Who’s doing it right?
It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to foresee what the purpose-driven companies of the future will, and should, look like. This archetype has been illuminated through the actions of countless brands who consistently navigate with a North Star centered on the customer.
Take Patagonia, for example. Not only is the company oriented around environmental sustainability and bold activism — issues that matter deeply to their customer base — but they truly bring these objectives to life. For example, they only use organic cotton and created an entirely new supply chain to make it possible. They also, suitably, took a stand against President Trump, suing the administration over the reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument.
Toms is another example of a company with a customer-centric purpose. Their one-for-one sales model is a genuine realization of their reason for being: to improve lives. Since 2006, they’ve given nearly 100 million pairs of shoes to people in need. Additionally, in response to the 2020 U.S. election, Toms set up a portal to help customers check voter registration and request mail-in ballots.
Subaru is also exemplary for a deep-rooted purpose that holds customers at its core. Their mission is reflective of efforts toward global sustainability, be it environmental, human rights or other social issues. The company also took extraordinary measures to protect employees physically and financially during Covid-19, despite reductions in profit. Of course, caring for employees is inextricably linked to the care of customers.
To meet evolving consumer expectations, brands need to invest in the ongoing pursuit of customer understanding, leveraging those insights to fulfill their unchanging corporate purpose in ways that meet the moment. Simply posting a statement on social media or directing an evocative commercial will no longer suffice.
So how can this mandate be met?
- Build the customer into your purpose. While a company can establish its purpose based on brand synergies and core values, it’s important to identify how the customer exists in that purpose. After all, if you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business. In an era of woke capitalism, corporations must be awake to how their people fold into their reason for being. When businesses are enlightened by current events, any actions they take should be grounded in the perspectives of customers and the employees who serve them.
- Deeply and holistically understand customers. Finding the customer in corporate purpose takes knowing who they are. What outcomes do they value? Have they saved time? Have they improved well-being? Are they protecting those less fortunate? Answering these questions entails listening. However, ears aren’t enough. Deep empathy for their needs and aspirations as human beings is required, and getting there means pairing ears with eyes. It means a combination of being present with customers, asking questions and not making assumptions. One way to accomplish this is by embracing an ethnographical approach to understanding through not just asking, but also through observation. Considering the pursuit of purpose is lifelong — and the perspective of consumers is ever-changing — capturing and gathering those insights longitudinally and consistently is key.
- Connect the why of each team to the outcomes of customer value. A strong purpose, interwoven with deep customer empathy, are futile if not embedded across the organization. Companies should clearly and consistently communicate their corporate why, grounded in a commitment to the customer. Help each team identify how their unique roles ladder up to it. Assist employees in translating the emotional, functional and social outcomes that customers value into actions they can take every day. And remember, rallying employees around a purpose means going beyond written and verbal messaging to role-modeling expected behaviors.
- Celebrate employees who put purpose into practice. Beyond communication, creating and sustaining a culture that lives its customer-centric purpose requires investment. When team members practice purpose-driven or customer-centric behavior, reward it meaningfully. Rewards, which can span from recognition to bonuses, incentivize positive behaviors into the future. For example, socializing desired actions of employees to the entire organization, no matter their level, not only motivates them personally, but it sets a good precedent for peers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for reward structures, so it is important to ensure yours fits the fabric of the culture that exists or reinforces the change you’re trying to create.
Customer-committed from the get-go
Reframing an existing corporate purpose to better reflect customers is no small task. Building an entirely new purpose around them is an even taller one. But entrepreneurs are in an advantageous spot to work with consumers and co-create a customer-centric purpose from the ground up. After all, they aren’t weighed down by a longstanding legacy.
The principles of listening, understanding and living purpose can be built into their foundation and into their systems, propagating ongoing iteration. Change is a given and the future won’t be a linear progression of the past, but these organizations will have a bright, guiding light to look to. Their actions will be steered by a strong, customer-centric purpose that, to the wider world reflects relevance and resonance by way of authenticity.