Corporate purpose is the reason a business exists beyond making a profit. A company with a strong corporate purpose sets forth a vision of a better world and commits to helping make that vision into a reality.
Purpose is a company’s north star. It guides decision making at every level—from product development to hiring practices and marketing strategies. In particular, an authentic purpose lends credibility to corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.
Authenticity is essential because customers and employees expect businesses have a clear corporate purpose that they actually follow through on. Being authentic means that the ideals you commit to are a natural extension of your business mission. But that commitment isn’t enough. You also need to articulate your purpose in a way that resonates with all stakeholders–employees, customers, your community, and more. A good corporate purpose not only makes an impact, it sets an example for others to follow.
If your company doesn’t have an authentic purpose or you aren’t communicating it clearly to all your stakeholders, here’s how to sharpen your vision and message.
How to shape your corporate purpose messaging
Most companies have everything they need to create a compelling and authentic corporate purpose. But it takes work to bring all the elements together.
Step 1: Start with your “why”
Corporate purpose is the reason your business exists at all. It connects what you do to why you do it. Again, it’s not just about making a profit. It’s about how your company shapes the world.
The concept of purpose is often used interchangeably with vision. But the two are distinct. Purpose often changes over time as the business grows or the culture shifts, while vision can hold steady in the long term.
To define your corporate purpose, start with the reason your company exists:
- As a company, what problem are you solving for your customers?
- How do your products or services improve people’s lives?
- What unique point of view do you bring to the table?
- What kind of workplace do you aim to create for employees?
Staring with these questions will ensure that your corporate purpose stays aligned to your business mission.
If you look at CVS Health’s purpose, you can see how it connects to their products and services. Their purpose is to “bring our heart to every moment of your health.” They aim to make people’s lives better through empathy and trust, and they build their teams and processes around that.
eBay strives to “make selling and buying equitable and attainable for all.” This purpose is a natural extension of their product, which connects individual buyers and sellers. As they’ve built out their messaging around community programs and business initiatives, they consistently evoke this idea of equity and inclusivity.
Step 2: Plant your flag
You’ve clarified how you improve your customers’ lives. Now it’s time to connect that to a broader story. You need to define the change your company wants to be in the world. This requires you to identify and commit to a set of values.
Values are principles or standards that guide decisions inside the organization. They’re often aspirational, meaningful in a larger context, and consistent with the overall company vision.
But values cannot be vague or theoretical. They need to connect to concrete actions. Employees should be able to see the thru-line of how your company’s values impact business initiatives.
For some companies, this might be baked into the business mission. For instance, Desolenator, a company that produces thermal desalination technology, can draw a clear line from the innovative product they make to the sustainable and equitable world they aim to create.
Other companies might need to do more work to create that thru-line. CarMax is the nation’s largest retailer of used cars. Their purpose is to “drive integrity by being honest and transparent in every action.” That purpose not only shapes how they do business, but also their commitment to a diverse workplace and community investment.
Incorporating values into your corporate purpose ensures that the story you craft feels authentic and connects to your company’s roots. Plus, strong values create a sense of meaning for everyone within the company. Ultimately, that’s what defines brand identity and helps to retain talent.
Step 3: Weave in your origin story
Your origin story matters. And crafting the story of how your company was born is a crucial step in defining a corporate purpose that is genuine and will resonate with others.
The path of building a business—from that first lightbulb moment to hiring a team—is an important tale. It’s often a story of struggle, hard lessons learned, and sometimes surprise challenges. Resilience is powerful.
What’s more, an origin story reveals people’s creativity and drive. Communicating a business success story humanizes the people behind it: the founders and investors, the board of directors, and the employees.
So collect key story elements: the history, what sets the company apart from competitors, and the background of the people leading the way today. Weave this origin story together with the values you’ve identified to create a narrative that resonates on a personal level.
Bringing all these elements together ensures your corporate purpose feels like natural evolution for your company. And it keeps the story from falling flat.
Dick’s Sporting Goods aims to equip all athletes to achieve their dreams. They tie that purpose to the story of Dick Stack, who started the company with $300 and a relentless work ethic. Connecting their purpose to a personal narrative helps people understand how their corporate purpose is woven into the company’s DNA, making it clear that it’s an authentic commitment, not just a PR play.
Make corporate purpose your north star
An authentic corporate purpose involves more than crafting a mission statement and then allowing it to collect dust. Corporate purpose should genuinely guide decisions across the entire company over time, whether large or small. Corporate purpose is a way of thinking and operating. It’s a north star, not a press release.
While a corporate purpose should feel aspirational, it also needs to be concrete enough for employees to actualize.
Every time employees start a new project or initiative, they should make an effort to connect what they’re doing to the corporate purpose. This practice shows the company’s commitment to putting values into action and helps everyone stay connected to the meaning behind their work.
Google‘s corporate purpose statement is a good example: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This is simultaneously a big idea, yet also feels understandable. It provides direction to employees when approaching problems or new projects, guiding them towards the company’s priorities.
At Google, their purpose extends into Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the company. During the Impact Studio Conference, Jen Carter, global head of technology & volunteering at Google.org, explained how she and her team leverage the company’s core ethos in their corporate giving programs: “Google is a place that has a big appetite for risky bets. We call them moonshots. So from Google.org’s earliest days, we’ve really looked for places where we can test out new ideas and direct risk capital toward big problems.”
Corporate social responsibility is an extension of corporate purpose
Consider corporate purpose a fundamental mindset that keeps the company on the right track. It bears repeating that this is more than a statement on the website.
As important as it is for your purpose to shape internal company culture and drive business strategy, it won’t mean much if it stops there. To make your purpose meaningful, you need to engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is how you make an impact on the community and help shape the world inside and outside of your company.
Corporate purpose should inform your overall CSR strategy, corporate philanthropy programs, and efforts around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing. If corporate purpose is an identity, action in these areas is how you express it. Without establishing a corporate purpose first, everything related to your CSR will likely lack substance and direction.
If you have yet to develop a CSR or corporate philanthropy strategy—or if you are suddenly searching “what’s ESG!?”—we’ve got you. Start by asking these questions:
- What resources can you leverage to help the local or global community?
- Can you offer corporate volunteering programs for employees to give back during normal work hours?
- What kind of giving program can you sponsor? Can you offer corporate matching for charitable donations?
- How can you form or strengthen partnerships with community organizations?
- How can you ensure sustainability in your operations?
When it comes to CSR, you don’t have to do it all right away. Try different approaches and commit to iterating and growing as you go. Be sure to find a suite of CSR software that can grow with you.
Remember, neither your corporate purpose nor your CSR programs are static. They should evolve as needs change and priorities shift. And none of this work happens in a vacuum. It’s all in conversation with the work other companies, nonprofits, community members, and public institutions are doing to make the world a better place.