Corporate and Brand Purpose: from rhetoric and aspiration to embedded, sustainable reality

Takeaways from the C&E Breakfast Dialogue, Tuesday 17 April 2018.

In his January 2018 letter to CEOs Larry Fink of Blackrock observes that “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose” and argues that “without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.

Seasoned sustainability, government affairs and marketing professionals from companies including Prudential, Unilever, Dixons Carphone, Coca-Cola, Kingfisher, DLA Piper, Warner Bros. and others, made the above topic their focus at C&E’s latest Breakfast Dialogue. Responding to the desire amongst corporate executives and responsible business professionals to place purpose at the heart of business strategy and long-term value creation, participants grappled with the long and short-term impacts, risks and potential of the evolving landscape around big business.   

The session was ignited by an honest and insightful input from Richard Ellis*, a veteran and global player in the sustainable business arena, following which participants engaged in a frank dialogue, encompassing the drivers for change and the obstacles to be overcome to achieve it.  Below are headlines from the discussion that was moderated by Manny Amadi of C&E Advisory. You can access the full summary here. 

  • A shift in perspective: Companies as Countries – CEOs as Presidents and senior executives with ministerial portfolios 
  • (Re)Discovering corporate purpose - everybody counts, even the dead! 
  • Leadership: Steer clear of the cult around CEO personality – it rarely ends well or serves long-term interests 
  • Purpose, then strategy – but authenticity lies in proactive execution 
  • When the Barbarians are at the gates – whatever you do, don’t panic 
  • Co-creation, collaboration and (100%) commitment are vital to success – within a business, sector or industry and cross-sector. 
  • Finally – remember we’re all human, we are all stakeholders in this planet, we all want ‘better’ and we all make mistakes.

All things considered it is clear that transforming the current interest in aligning corporate and brand purpose with long-term value creation for business and society, into embedded reality demands careful consideration and execution. Key requirements include: a strategic, considered, open and collaborative approach; strong, but distributed leadership; an understanding of the complexities and time involved in changing behaviours and outcomes (including the growing recognition of the boards of big business as “governments”); effective internal leavers aligned with engaging and communicating transparently with business and society.  Honesty and humility are also key principles – not least because the journey is not a straight path, and things will sometimes go wrong! 

*Richard Ellis is VP, Global Corporate Responsibility, Walgreen Boots Alliance. 

About the Breakfast Dialogue Series

C&E’s Breakfast Dialogue series are free, by invitation, informal discussions held over a light breakfast and involving a dozen or so senior participants from corporate, NGO and public-sector backgrounds. They are highly interactive, informed discussions in which participants share their perspectives, experiences and insights – under Chatham House Rules.