Putting purpose into practice
From investors to employees, a wide range of stakeholders have been calling on businesses to better articulate their purpose, fast-tracking the issue to the top of the boardroom agenda.
But while purpose may have been sitting high up the corporate psyche for a while now, some boards are still struggling to come to grips with the concept. A recent report from the University of Oxford – Said Business School has outlined a new governance framework called SCORE to try to help businesses put purpose into practice. However, the reality of how effectively this structure can be embedded into an organisation is still open to scrutiny.
Talking a good game
What is clear is that the intent is there. Most big businesses have upped their game at a corporate level.
reference ESG issues or social responsibility in their purpose
Purpose matters to a range of stakeholders – and the content of the purpose statement should be a reflection of what really matters to your business.
So, focusing on social responsibility presents an easy way to highlight its place at the heart of the organisation.
This is not limited to a specific sector – all kinds of businesses are making the shift: L’Oréal exists to ‘Create the beauty that moves the world’; Anglo American is ‘Re-imagining mining to improve people’s lives’; and Lloyds Banking Group is ‘Helping Britain prosper’.
Many businesses are also keen to promote their bold ESG commitments.
clearly highlight their ESG and social responsibility targets and objectives
On the surface, this paints a pretty good picture and sets exactly the right tone. Instead of muddling through pages of statistical analysis, these messages place material issues in clear focus. Audiences can see where businesses are directing their attention and have clear sight of their objectives.
Nestle uses targets to help structure its social responsibility stories. It outlines three bold ambitions that act as messaging pillars to highlight how the business is ‘Creating Shared Value’. These ambitions are colour-coded and provide a visual tagging system for all other pieces of content that relate to this area across the site. 36 commitments form the body of these ambitions, breaking down and evidencing the specific initiatives being undertaken and the progress that has been made to date. This structure supports a simple navigation and helps build a clear picture of how and where social responsibility is integrated into the business.
Others focus on their efforts to support global sustainability initiatives.
refer to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
These sit at the heart of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, targeted at addressing global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.
When highlighting ESG targets...
Think creatively: visual presentation is a key part of delivering an impactful message. Graphic icons, animation and font style will help key content stand out.
Evidence each commitment: targets only take on meaning in context – and when backed up by evidence. On their own they fall flat.
Create a structure: overarching targets can be used to form a framework for ESG content, providing clear message pillars to shape the narrative.
Get lost in content: if key messages get buried in thick body copy or busy designs they often get overlooked. Hidden targets don’t communicate confidence.
Flood the message: not all parts of ESG need to be reflected in key business commitments. Don’t dilute focus – what are the issues that really matter?
Stop reinforcing the message: referencing targets once is not enough. Draw back to them repeatedly across other content.
Hitting the right target
The challenge is that too many purpose statements are awkward at best – and vacuous at worst.
Organisations often try to shoehorn ESG issues in where they do not always fit, defaulting to corporate clichés to help plug the gaps.
‘Building a better tomorrow’, ‘Connecting our future’, or ‘Unlocking opportunities to improve lives’ could be the purpose of any one of the 100 companies in this index. And what do they mean…? If the message does not stack up in the first place, it becomes even harder to evidence.
Strong purpose statements...
Lead the narrative: purpose is not a standalone idea; it should act as a central theme that connects different business areas and drives the organisation’s story.
Create consistency: strategies and goals can change, but a strong purpose is set to last and helps promote a consistent thread across all content.
Take time to hone text: purpose will not get sorted in a single brainstorm – but it is important to invest time into getting it right. If the core of your narrative does not fit, it is hard to build a credible story around it.
Use cliché: purpose should be ownable – not interchangeable – and avoid defaulting to common, lazy rhetoric.
Become generic: vague messaging might be inoffensive, but it is uninspiring.
Pretend: if purpose is not an honest reflection of a business, its narrative will quickly start to fall apart. Integrity is more important than latching on to popular themes.
Similarly, setting out targets and commitments might create an impression of accountability – but many are largely for show and are too easy to procrastinate. Take a common target, like achieving net zero carbon by 2050. The intent reflects well on the business – but the end point is a long way off. And way beyond the tenure of most CEOs or management teams. The same applies to the UN SDGs. In reality, no company should be saying that they are trying to tackle all of the SDGs – that is unrealistic and shows that they have not thought about their material impacts. They need to be specific about what they are tackling – and why.
No single company can – or will – be expected to solve world hunger, the climate crisis, or global poverty.
And, more importantly in this context, no single company will be held accountable if it does not happen. It is likely more important to talk about the partnerships that the company is making to deliver those ambitions. Creating that ‘authentic’ voice will be massively helped by detailing links with external partners and stakeholders that can help bring a much wider goal into focus.
Ahead of facts, figures, business models and operating strategy, Santander recognises that stories are what give substance to a strapline. To reinforce its purpose, the bank explores what prosperity means in real terms to its people, partners, customers and communities through a short film, highlighting a range of human voices. As a focal piece of content on its ‘About us’ page, it highlights how the bank has fostered innovation, inclusiveness and collaboration, which are depicted as a central part of how it operates. Social responsibility is ingrained in these stories, communicating it in a clearer way than top-line targets alone.