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Is Corporate Purpose Still Relevant in 2024?

Yes, but Brands Must Get Much More Personal in Their Words and Actions

Purpose-driven work has become more highly scrutinized in recent years, yet it remains mutually inclusive with corporate reputation, commercial success and employee engagement. In fact, against a backdrop of surging consumer cynicism, businesses are increasingly judged and rewarded or punished for their ability to align with the values and needs of their customers and employees.

The terms “corporate or brand purpose” and “purpose-driven communications” are probably overused, but the need for businesses to understand and demonstrate how they can make a positive impact on the ecosystem they operate in hasn’t changed. People want brands (and, by extension, their corporate leaders) to demonstrate a commitment to making the world a better place, but they’re cynical about companies striving to do good.

So how can businesses effectively meet demands for more transparency around their purpose and social impact when these same stakeholders are increasingly skeptical about good corporate intention and purpose?

A global survey from WE Communications of nearly 15,000 people revealed that Australians believe fewer than half of brands globally (42%) are delivering on their commitments — and many suspect that brands that do act are doing so just to sell us things.

In fact, the number of Aussies in the survey categorized as “purpose cynics,” defined as people who believe it’s not the role of brands to comment or act on social issues at all, increased more than any other market globally: from 31% in 2022 to 37% in 2023. And at the other end of the spectrum, the proportion of “purpose patrons” in Australia — those who strongly support brands speaking up and acting on social issues — decreased to 33% of Aussies last year.

The data also shows that aspirations for climate change, education opportunities and social justice — issues that have risen to prominence over the past six years — are holding steady as fundamental elements of a strong corporate reputation, but more pragmatic and personal concerns have leapfrogged to the top of the list for consumers. In Australia, the top five concerns of consumers were employee personal needs, income/inequality, economic outlook, climate change and education opportunities.

There is a nuance of meaning in these results that businesses and corporate communications teams should consider. Essentially, people are saying that businesses must continue to articulate clear positions and actions on table stakes issues such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, while paying greater attention to the more immediate and personal concerns of their customers and employees. Leaders today need to meet expectations for businesses to speak up on broader social issues and do what they can to help people, but actions, commitments and words must be uber-relevant and personal to the business, its audiences, and the local economic and geographic context.

We’ve seen many recent local examples of brands facing consumer backlash for a stance they’ve taken on social issues without satisfactorily addressing other immediate concerns such as cost-of-living pressures or gender pay equity.

Brands can navigate tough economic conditions and strengthen their reputations while navigating increased consumer cynicism by recommitting to a select group of values-aligned goals, while making it clear that they hear what people need.

Close to one in four Australians would prefer businesses to make practical commitments as opposed to ambitious goals. Suffice to say, we all want to save the planet, but businesses that commit to actions which directly impact their customers, employees and investors, and effectively communicate these actions, will be rewarded reputationally and commercially. Standing still, running for cover or opting for a greenhushing approach is never the answer — but it is a balancing act.

Brand purpose serves no purpose if it’s not embedded in the DNA of your organization. To avoid being perceived as “woke-washing,” brands must make sure their actions are consistent with their purpose: from the products they create to how they treat their people. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming across as self-serving and inauthentic — especially when taking a public stance on social issues.

Brand purpose, though the term has seen some overuse, has not become redundant, even among the surge of consumer cynicism. It’s just that the rules — and the communications — have become more nuanced.

Learn more about our Coporate Reputation & Brand Purpose services »

March 28, 2024

Libby Woolnough
Group Head - Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose, WE Communications Australia