New Data Shows How The Pandemic Disrupted Companies’ Higher Purpose

The 2021 Purpose Power Index revealed a new "5 Ps" for brands in the age of purpose—plus four principles companies should adopt to highlight purpose.

The pandemic disrupted many areas, but one unlikely place? Brand purpose—or so the data suggest. Findings from the Purpose Power Index study reveal a brand purpose landscape that has changed dramatically from just a year prior, pre-pandemic. The new research, conducted in early 2021, compared U.S. consumers’ perceptions about purpose driven brands to an earlier wave of the same study conducted in late 2019. Movement marketing firm StrawberryFrog partnered with RepTrak to conduct both waves of the study.

The findings show not just a step change vs. the 2019 results, but an upheaval in the top brands the public sees as serving a higher purpose. Over 50% of the top 20 purpose brands are new, and one-third of the top 100 purpose brands are new.

In 2019, the top purpose brands tended to be smaller, ‘purpose-born’ brands like Seventh Generation, TOMS and allbirds. But in 2021, the brand purpose ‘tent’ got much bigger, revealing a set of top purpose leaders that’s a more diverse bunch compared to 2019:

• Big Pharma: Brands like Pfizer, Abbvie and GSK—all near the bottom of the 2019 list of 200 brands—rose dramatically to the top behind their push to help in the pandemic. Out of 15 industries included in the research, pharma went from #11 in 2019 to #1 in 2021.

• Bold Innovators: SpaceX and Tesla soared to the top of the list as they pushed to make earth more sustainable and interplanetary, and Zoom moved into the top 20.

• Pandemic Heroes: Brands like anti-bacterial Clorox, mask-making 3M and paper goods giant Kimberly Clark were recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty to keep households supplied with Covid essentials.

• Industry Giants: Unlike 2019, 2021’s purpose leaders tended to be much larger companies: 8 of the top 10 purpose brands in 2021 had revenues of $10 billion or more, compared to just 1 in 2019.

The research also reveals the underlying factors that drive public perception of higher purpose in brands. In addition to having consumers rate the 200+ brands on being driven by a higher purpose, the research also asked them to rate brands on a wide range of activation-related attributes, e.g., caring for the communities it services, caring for the environment, supporting individual rights, advocating for employees, etc. We then did statistical analysis to understand how these factors work together in consumers’ minds to drive perceptions of being purposeful. The analysis revealed that that there is a new “5 Ps” for brands in the age of purpose:

1. Product – This is the most important driver, and has to do with offering products & services that not only make everyday life better, but positively contribute to society. Brands that do well on this dimension include top purpose leaders like Seventh Generation, Kimberly Clark and Clorox. A surprise stand out on this driver was Unilever which, as a parent company like P&G, usually gets much less recognition that the well-known brands under its umbrella like Axe and Dove. But under CEO Alan Jope, Unilever has publicly committed to and acted upon a corporate higher purpose of “making sustainability commonplace” for several years, and the new PPI data show it is getting public credit for it in the products it produces.

2. Progress – This driver has to do with “actively innovates solutions to advance mankind.” It’s perhaps not surprising that this is the #2 most important driver, given the dire need for innovation and progress during the pandemic. And several major corporations over-delivered in the public’s mind. One of Elon’s Musk’s brain-children, SpaceX, was number one of this driver, as the brand demonstrated that is was living its purpose of “making humanity multi-planetary.” But several Big Pharma brands, including Pfizer, scored highly on this dimension as did innovator 3M, as well as Elon Musk’s other brand, Tesla, with its purpose of ‘speeding mankind’s push towards sustainability.’

3. Planet – This driver is about making products & services sustainably and having environmentally responsible operations. Brands that perform well on this driver include the kind of brands you might expect, like REI, but one unexpected stand-out on this dimension is LEGO. Its higher purpose is “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” and against this vision the brand has invested $400 million investment to accelerate environmental and social responsibility initiatives. By 2025, all LEGO packaging will be made from renewable or recycled materials and the company has pledged to make all core LEGO products from sustainable materials by 2030.

4. People – This “P” is all about caring for employees and the communities the company serves. Standout companies on this driver include USAA, Target and Starbucks, each of which has been recognized elsewhere for its employee advocacy and community support. Another stand-out worth noting on the People dimension is Chick-fil-A. The brand’s higher purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”  In living its purpose, the brand took swift action during Covid to protect their employees and community—from immediately shutting down business to using their drive-thru to help distribute vaccinations to the community. As VP Rodney Bullard is quoted as saying, “If you want to change the world, start with the person three feet away.”

5. Positive Change – While this driver is last on the list, don’t underestimate its power. It’s all about supporting social justice (e.g., caring about LGBT rights, promoting gender equality, supporting the rights of racial minorities) and engaging in social activism, (e.g., aligning with a societal movement and having a CEO who takes a stand on important social issues.) Positive Change leaders in the 2021 PPI research include Nike, the NBA, Ben & Jerry’s and UPS, all of whom have had public POVs about the importance of individual rights and the need for greater equality. One brand that has taken social activism to a higher level is Patagonia. The brand’s purpose is clear: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” In living its purpose, 50 days prior to the 2020 election, Patagonia added a new tag in their men’s Regenerative Organic Stand Up Shorts: “Vote the Assholes Out.”

How to be seen as a purpose driven brand leader? Four principles for successful purpose activation emerged from the 2021 Purpose Power Index.

1. Clarity

If you build it they won’t necessarily come. The public can’t give your company credit for being purpose driven if they have no idea what your higher purpose is. This may seem obviously, but apparently not all of corporate America has gotten the memo: across the  200+ brands we studied, on average only 26% of consumers agree that they know what the company’s higher purpose is.

2. Boldness

Top purpose leaders don’t just have a purpose, and they don’t just do something with it.  They activate it in a bold way. In our research, brands that get credit for being purposeful are over 100% more likely to be seen as “not afraid to be bold or controversial when it comes to acting on its higher purpose,” and more than 70% more likely to be seen as a company that “has or would take specific actions to demonstrate it’s genuine in fulfilling its higher purpose.”

3. Altitude

For some companies, purpose operates at a more functional level—e.g., Google’s “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible.” Sometimes it’s a level higher, about making everyday life better—e.g. Starbucks “inspiring the human spirit, one cup, one community, one connection at a time.” The PPI research finds that top purpose leaders tend to operate at an even higher altitude, benefiting not just everyday life, but the world at large—e.g., Tesla “speeding mankind’s advance toward sustainability.” And they tend to be associated with a major issue or movement in society. Think Seventh Generation, REI and Patagonia and the environment. If you want to be seen as purposeful, benefit the world, not sure shareholders or customers.

4. Story

When thinking about the 5Ps of purpose, it’s important to point out that top purpose brands tend to get greater credit not just for 1 or 2 of them, but for several if not all of them. Higher purpose isn’t just a ‘why’ statement in people’s heads about your company, but rather a holistic story based on everything they know about what your company says or does. You can’t just jump on one “P,” like Positive Change—do some social activism—and then expect consumers to ignore that you have no stance on sustainability and don’t treat employees particularly well. That’s a sure path to being seen as a purpose washer.

The brand purpose ‘tent’ is getting bigger. Once the realm of smaller, ‘purpose born’ companies, being viewed as purpose-driven now seems open to almost any company that chooses to behave in ways that address meaningful societal issues of the day. The question arises through: can these companies retain their purpose perception once the pandemic crisis is over? Time will tell, but one thing’s for certain from our research findings: if you act in ways that benefit all, people will take notice and reward you for it. That’s the power of higher purpose in action.

Based in New York, Chip Walker is the head of strategy and a partner at StrawberryFrog. He’s recognized for his expertise in brand creation and re-invention, and has led the charge in transforming brands such as Goldman Sachs, Lexus, Bank of America, Jim Beam, and Heineken. Chip is a frequent speaker at some of the branding world’s major events, including the Cannes Lions Festival, the Advertising Research Foundation, Sustainable Brands and the Conference Board. His writing and opinions have appeared widely in places like Adweek, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and CNBC. Chip is also the author of the new book Activate Brand Purpose which he co-wrote with Scott Goodson, Founder & CEO of StrawberryFrog.