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Colliding Work, Personal Values Underscores Need for Purpose-Led Brand Culture

Brands that empower their employees to act with them in their sustainability plan — and let their brand culture guide the creation of that plan — reap benefits. To foster a purpose-led brand culture, brands need to fuse these five elements ...

In 2020, work and personal lives collided as offices closed and professionals carved out new home offices (who needs a dining room, anyway?). Likewise, more and more employees are recognizing that who they work for can have just as big an impact on the planet and people as their personal actions.

In a consumer research study conducted early this year, Barkley found that four in five people believe it is important to align their personal values and beliefs with the those of the places where they work. We see this as the fusion of purpose and sustainability. And employees who feel positively about the impact they can make at work are typically happier, less likely to leave, and more engaged in their work — producing higher-quality outputs.

You now might be thinking, “Yes! We should do that!” If only it were so simple.

Purpose-led culture is not easy to operationalize. It can’t simply be a statement on the wall. But it is a critical strategy for brands to help them reach their own sustainability goals. It’s about winning inside to win outside. Brands that empower their employees to act with them in their sustainability plan reap benefits. Brands that let their brand culture guide the creation of that sustainability action plan are the ones who earn a competitive advantage.

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So, what exactly is brand culture?

While culture is the values, beliefs and behaviors that employees experience while working for an organization; brand culture is the alignment of those internal values, beliefs and behaviors with how that brand shows up in the world.

Southwest Airlines is a good example of this idea in practice. The brand’s purpose is: ‘Connect people to what's important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel.” The airline’s dedication to service, both to passengers and to each other, defines its brand culture. Southwest continues to strengthen that brand culture by celebrating acts of service both publicly and internally.

To foster a purpose-led brand culture, brands need to fuse these five elements:

1. Know your why. Defining your brand’s purpose is an obvious first step in creating a purpose-led culture. What is the intersection of what your brand does and how it can positively impact the people and planet? There are many ways to craft a purpose statement; but at the core, a purpose should be 1) meaningful — communicating your values and beliefs in a way that ignites the hearts and minds of your core audience; and, 2) actionable — inspiring initiatives that drive progress.

It’s also helpful to hire employees whose values align to your company values. A colleague of mine, Philippa, who used to work at Ben & Jerry’s, has said that Jerry (yes, he’s a real person) would often say it was far more effective for the company to hire someone who was passionate about the company’s social mission than hire for technical skills. The latter could be taught on the job, but the former is much harder to replicate.

This alignment of values can only come when a brand is clear about what it stands for.

2. Communicate your purpose internally first. You now have a purpose statement. Great! Don’t let your employees first learn about it in news coverage about your sustainability plan. As another colleague of mine, Jimmy Keown, explains in the upcoming book The Culture Advantage:

“Oftentimes, sustainability programs don't feel very real to employees, because they can't participate. So, finding ways for more people to participate in organizations is really a good way to close the Brand Culture Action Gap, because people find again that sense of belonging beyond just words and what they see within the marketplace.”

The Brand Culture Action Gap refers to the discrepancy between what employees have identified as the most important brand culture attributes and what they believe to be true of their work experience. Making internal communication a priority is a simple step; and as Jimmy says, finding ways for employees to participate can help close this gap. Which brings us to the next point:

3. Involve employees in the creation of your sustainability plan. Employees are a brand’s greatest asset in reaching its sustainability goals; so make sure they are at the table when it comes time to ideate initiatives, programs and partners in support of your company’s commitments.

Eileen Fisher — founder of the leading women’s apparel brand aimed at providing clothes for a simple, sustainable wardrobe — agrees. Despite efforts to educate her employees on the importance of sustainability and the impact of the apparel industry, it wasn’t until her organization went through a series of cross-departmental workshops in 2013 that employees aligned on 2020 goals — including sourcing 100 percent sustainable materials.

In a recent Forbes article, Fisher was quoted as saying:

“People really come with what's the best for the company, what's the best for the planet, what's the best work we can do here, what's the best product we can deliver, what's best for the customer; and it's really this kind of selfless, kind of egoless way of collaborating and being together, and searching always to solve the problems or find the best solutions.”

Having representation from across the organization will elicit new thinking, uncover stories that show your purpose in action, and bring your employees along on the journey toward reaching your sustainability goals — making it more likely that your company will achieve them. After all, employees are the ones who have the day-to-day power to make change. Enter point four:

4. Enable and empower people to act. Although your company may have a core group responsible for developing and reporting on a sustainability plan, they can’t be the only ones responsible for results.

For example, many Unilever brands have a clear brand purpose backed up by sustainability action. This structure is by design. The organization has a relatively small central sustainability team; but it has a strong network of “sustainability champions” across functions, business units and brands.

For complex transformational change within an organization, it requires everyone from innovation to HR to distribution to marketing to think differently and collaborate on the best ways to solve pressing issues. One way to create accountability is to incorporate sustainability goals into performance reviews. But before you do that, brands must help employees understand what the company’s goals mean, how they are relevant to their job and what they can do to enact change.

There is also a growing trend among leading sustainable companies to help their employees discover their personal purpose. KPMG’s Higher Purpose initiative from 2014 is one such effort.

When employees can align their role to what the company is trying to accomplish, they find more meaning in their job. Brands with successful sustainability programs will harness the power of their employees’ passion and create accountability across teams, through systems and structures that allow them to act on the strategy within their own role.

5. Celebrate actions that reinforce your brand culture. As humans, we are hardwired for reward. Whenever our brain’s reward circuit is activated, it tells us that something is worth remembering and repeating. Companies that succeed at building a purpose-led brand culture take time to create rituals that reward those behaviors.

At Barkley, one ritual we have is to recognize individuals with gratitudes. We share gratitudes at the beginning of every meeting for individuals or teams who have gone the extra mile, through heartfelt messages that recognize the positive contribution the individual or team has made.

Recognition of those that live the brand culture is key to developing and fostering a purpose-led culture.

By taking all of these factors into consideration, brands can move beyond simply stating their values — and instead, start cultivating a company culture that acts on those values and celebrates those who join them in making a positive impact. Brand culture is a central component of any successful sustainability strategy; and, in a time when personal and professional collision is the reality, purpose-led brand culture is the best strategy for winning inside and out.

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