Advice from Large Companies on Establishing Purpose

By Christa Avampato, Meghan Hall |  March 22, 2023

The concept of using purpose as a decision-making tool and business guidepost has become increasingly important inside large companies over the last few years. Some companies believe their purpose should contribute to creating a better world, through sustainable practices; others are working to ensure access and equity in their industries; and there are a number of other causes that companies have embraced as part of defining a clear organizational purpose. 

But many companies are still grappling with establishing a purpose — and integrating it into their strategies — for the first time. 

As part of our collaboration with BCG BrightHouse, we interviewed 12 leaders whose organizations use already purpose as a north star. Several of those interviewees shared their best advice for setting up a purpose function inside of an organization. 

Sarah Beaubien, Senior Director of Impact and Sustainability, Clif Bar & Co.

Sarah Beaubien, Senior Director of Impact and Sustainability at Clif Bar & Co., the California-based company which makes energy bars and drinks, said she believes having cross-functional teams and relationships can help bolster purpose’s impact inside an organization. 

She shared that Clif Bar & Co., which was acquired by Mondelēz International, has a set of sustainable nutrition guidelines, developed in accordance with the company’s Five Aspirations, which encapsulate its purpose. The nutrition guidelines help to keep Clif on track toward more sustainably made products that benefit both the consumer and the planet. 

Beaubien shared more about relationships — and how an initiative’s champion can make a difference in working purposefully — in her interview.

Sarah Beaubien, Senior Director of Impact and Sustainability, Clif Bar & Co.: “I think most important, like a lot of things in sustainability, is developing those relationships across functions…

It took a champion — it happened to be a person in our nutrition team — who really pushed it through and was persistent to get [Clif’s sustainable nutrition] guidelines written, to involve cross-functional teams and the writing of the guidelines. But I think you need a champion, somebody who is familiar with the organization, and is willing to develop those relationships across teams. 

I think in any organization, even one like Clif where [purpose], the five aspirations, and impact is part of our ethos, you still need top-down support. I think what is critical is that you also have the governance process set up for those guidelines. It’s one thing to have the guidelines written — and another [thing] when there’s an expectation that people are using them at that stage-gate process, [and] that they know they’re going to have to defend why or why not they’re hitting KPIs in a certain way.”

Alex Ho

Alex Ho, who was previously the Chief Marketing Officer of Terminix, the pest control company based in Memphis, Tennessee, and before that worked at American Greetings and Procter & Gamble, said he has had experience leveraging purpose in several organizations. For him, purpose needs to connect with things that customers care about and value.

Alex Ho, Chief Marketing Officer (formerly Terminix, American Greetings, Procter & Gamble): “Alignment of purpose is important — between the company, their customers, providers, vendors, etc. That alignment comes from listening, really listening, to what the stakeholders of a business care about. What matters to them? What do they value? How does your company align with those values? 

With B2C businesses, doing deep dives through ethnographic techniques and interviews help a company actively listen. You need professionals that can really go beneath the surface of what’s being said to really understand what’s the psychological motivation. What are the key drivers? With B2B, the key is to train the sales force that has the relationship with the customer. Either way, the key to alignment is to have deep discussions based on trust. You have to ask the questions and you have to go deep to get to root values.

Alignment of purpose is important — between the company, their customers, providers, vendors, etc. That alignment comes from listening, really listening, to what the stakeholders of a business care about.

You’re not going to see and realize the commercial benefit of purpose, or purpose-driven innovation, until that purpose is truly internally adopted by an entire organization. This takes a serious investment of time, resources, and communications to allow an organization to bring everybody into the fold, to make purpose a part of the culture. The company’s leaders need to embrace the purpose, and that purpose needs to be evident in their strategy, actions, and communications. They have to walk the talk of purpose in order to drive wide-scale adoption, within an organization and with external stakeholders.”

Thanks to BCG BrightHouse for their sponsorship of this series. Read more pieces on innovating purposefully here.

Tia Cummings-Hopkins, SVP of Global Brand Marketing, Square

Tia Cummings-Hopkins is the SVP of Global Brand Marketing at Square. Square, the payments and point-of-sale company based in San Francisco, has had a clearly-articulated purpose, which focuses on economic empowerment for all, since it was founded in 2009. The company tries to apply that purpose in every strategy and decision internally, Cummings-Hopkins said. 

For her, a good starting place is evaluating what your company can actually live up to — not just talk about.

Tia Cummings-Hopkins, SVP of Global Brand Marketing, Square: “It really starts with authenticity. You have to know who you are as a brand or a company, and what can you authentically say that aligns with who you are, and what your customer needs. Because today’s customers are very savvy. They will see through anything that feels phony, so you have to think through what are we authentically about; what needs do we truly solve? And where is the overlap between us and our customer? 

Talk to your customers, research. Talk to them constantly, consistently. I always say research isn’t just something you can do once a year. You need to be talking on a regular basis. We’re talking to business owners monthly at Square, and that’s how we’re able to stay on top of things that are changing, but also understanding if we need to make any pivots. 

Start with talking to your customer and understanding what matters to them; look at your business, and think about what you can authentically stand for.

So any company that’s looking to identify their purpose [should] start with talking to your customer, and understanding what matters to them. Look at your business, and think about what you can authentically stand for. Sometimes, if you’re a business — let’s say you’ve been around 50 years. Go back 50 years, do the research — you’d be surprised. Your company may have started with a purpose 50 years ago, and just kind of lost it along the way. But go back to investigate there, because you may find some really unique nuggets that will help you figure out how you clarify what your purpose is today.”