The Power of Purpose in Driving Business Success

According to Yale professor Richard Foster, the average company launched today can be expected to survive only 15 years, compared to over 67 years for those founded in the 1920s. The path to brand love and related customer loyalty has become rocky, and ensuring a dependable stable business today is harder than ever before.

One hundred-plus years ago, companies such as Ford, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and CVS (along with the 14 other members of the Sustainable Brands Corporate Member network with over 100 years in operation) were launched with a clear sense of purpose based on the intent to solve a recognizable social problem. Early leaders of these companies believed that profit would come as a result of creating real value for their customers.

As the 20th century unfolded, a growing middle class fueled the economic engine, success bred a hunger for more, and slowly but surely, the focus of leadership turned toward the power to generate profit rather than the power to deliver on purpose. This trend was exacerbated with the advent of Madison Avenue, as marketers learned they could influence consumers to feel insecure in their happiness and to respond by flocking to the comforts offered by a whole new array of products and solutions offering a 'sure fix for what ails you'.

While the unintended consequences of what felt for decades like the Holy Grail - an infallible engine to increase global prosperity - began to be recognized toward the end of the 20th century, the advent of the Internet has vastly accelerated our understanding of the interconnectedness of our collective actions, and we are now increasingly aware of previously unrecognized externalities being perpetrated on our planet and its inhabitants. As a result, we now find ourselves in the midst of a global self-reflection about the role of brands in the world, our relationship to them as consumers, and our expectations of them moving forward. The tide has changed, and business as usual - with its laser focus on quarterly earnings growth - is no longer sitting right with most of us.

Today, we are in the midst of a substantial paradigm shift in terms of our expectations of the brands we support. And as the demand for new products, services and business models that once again deliver on both purpose and profit continues to soar, business leaders who are tapping this shift are thriving in the face of uncertainty.

Building a successful, purpose-led business in today's world presents a complex set of challenges. It requires a reboot in the way we think about strategy, informed by a vastly extended field of knowledge about the social and environmental impacts of our operations. And it depends on a new set of tools and partners. Having a purpose statement alone will not drive you into the leaders circle or build the trusted and authentic brand that customers today increasingly demand; the next economy requires whole systems shifts through the collaboration of all parts of the value network.

The good news is, many forward-thinking brands - both smaller, local brands and global multi-nationals - are realizing that they have far more impact on society and the environment, for good or otherwise, than they once understood. By understanding these impacts more deeply, and reconnecting their strategy and operations to an authentic purpose, they are reengaging their customers as partners to help create shared value in a changing world.

How have brands successfully responded to this changing business landscape so far, and what will it take to enable genuinely purpose-driven business leaders to consistently perform above the rest of the pack? Over the coming year, starting this June at SB'16 San Diego, business and brand leaders within the global Sustainable Brands community will be gathering on six continents to share how they are succeeding by Activating Purpose with sustainability-driven innovation that creates both positive impact and profit at scale. Our focus will be on the global truth that it is time for all businesses to once again embed a meaningful purpose beyond profit. We'll explore the systems, processes, tools and partnerships that are helping to introduce net positive results for the businesses we serve and their stakeholders.

A few highlights of SB'16 San Diego will include:

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  • Vaseline, REI, JetBlue, Ben & Jerry's, Campbell Soup and others will go behind the scenes on new consumer engagement campaigns that are shaping the landscape of purpose-driven brand positioning and initiatives.
  • Etsy, Mud Jeans, MetaWear and The Renewal Workshop will showcase innovation strategies that disrupt the whole value chain, baking in quality, uniqueness, transparency, humanity and wise use of materials from day one.
  • LinkedIn, Nike, Timberland and Kohler will address benefits of purpose-driven employees, and how brands can close the 'purpose gap' by changing employee culture and mindsets in the order to embed sustainability priorities throughout the entire organization.
  • Kashi, Nespresso, Ford, MillerCoors and Hershey will walk through exemplary case studies in supply chain leadership, sharing a rich variety of cutting-edge strategies for engaging and collaborating with suppliers to incentivize and help them innovate for sustainability.

This Huffington Post series, brought to you by the Sustainable Brands community, will celebrate ten years of moving from making the case for purpose-driven brand leadership to uncovering the the tools, methods and models for activating purpose at scale. Join us in the coming months as we bring you stories first from SB'16 San Diego, and then from around the world as we convene leaders in Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen, Japan and beyond. We welcome your thoughts and encourage collective dialogue as together we look to a future that starts with a commitment to rethink the role of business in the next economy, and then moves to imagine the possibility and build the new disciplines to enable purpose-driven brands to take the lead in the coming decades.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Sustainable Brands on the power of purpose in driving business success. The Huffington Post is a media partner for SB'16 San Diego, Sustainable Brands' flagship conference in San Diego June 6th-9th.