Forget CSR, businesses that want to win in 2021 must focus on Purpose

The term “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) is no longer relevant to businesses that want to thrive in a post-Covid world. Instead, winning business have evolved CSR into a cohesive ‘Purpose’ strategy. In the context of brands, ‘purpose’ is the foundation of every experience. It is the underlying essence that makes a brand relevant and necessary. 

Purpose-driven brands have a mature approach to environmental sustainability, social issues, diversity & inclusion, responsible sourcing, resilient and responsible supply chains but they most importantly have embedded human values into every level of their organisation—values which resonate with consumers. As with any business, all brands want to be financially successful, but a purpose-driven brand prioritises how they make people’s lives and society better.

Many businesses suffered during the pandemic. However, businesses with a strong “Purposeful” presence demonstrated resilience and agility. COVID-19 really put the nature of brands, their character and their values under the microscope. As a response, we saw many organisations announcing ambitious sustainability goals in 2020, such as Microsoft committing to being Carbon Negative by 2050. The pandemic tested all of our humanity and values, and as a result, it impacted our expectations of brands. COVID-19 gave us a different perspective and therefore elevated the very idea of "Purpose”. 

According to Google Trends over the 90 days leading to Earth Day in 2020, search interest in “How to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by more than 4,550%. Proof that the restrictions imposed by lockdown were inspiring consumers to change their behaviour. 

Data shows that since the first lockdown, people are choosing to shop locally and from smaller business. Potentially with more time to cook at home or just pure interest in a sustainability or improved health, many have moved towards a plant-based diet. In fact, veganism in the UK increased by 90% during last year’s first lockdown. And this shift is happening in the apparel industry too. For example, a children’s clothing brand offering only organic cotton and recycled plastic saw a 60% increase in sales last year. The Marketing Store’s If Not Now, When? study found that 72% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers prefer to buy from brands that do good, and that 69% of all consumers prefer brands to have credibility in the causes they support. 

Why? Because, as Simon Sinek mentions in his book, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” This is even more relevant following a global life changing experience such like COVID-19, when  everyone is going through a reset and taking time to re-prioritise what is important for them. 

But it’s not just consumers that businesses need to demonstrate a purpose to, employees are  also increasingly attracted to purposeful brands. Climate change, human rights and social equity are all issues of growing importance, especially for millennial employees, who now make up the majority of the workforce. These internal demands for climate-positive action are forcing a transformation of workplace culture. Study shows that 63% of employees expressed the desire to learn more green skills so that they can become more valuable in the workplace.

So, who’s getting it right? Some great examples of brands that are purpose led are:

Dove: Through its #speakbeautiful movement, Dove seeks to help girls gain more confidence in their beauty. On social media, women tend to express negative thoughts about their looks. This movement encourages women to use social media to share positive things about themselves and others.

The Body Shop has an immensely profound brand purpose that drives its business efforts. The Body Shop’s motto is “Enrich, Not Exploit.” It is committed to enriching its people, products, and planet with supporting initiative.

Patagonia’s 4 core values are embedded in the way it does business: Build the best product, Cause no unnecessary harm, Use business to protect nature, Not bound by convention. The way it engages consumers enables individuals to becomes active and no longer passive.

Do these initiatives earn these brands a profit? Not directly. But it makes their brand easier to relate to and creates a meaningful purpose that anyone can get behind. It’s a great way for brands to impact the world while making money.

And what about The Marketing Store? What are we doing to ensure we are a purposeful employer and positive influence on our clients? The year of the pandemic, 2020, was the first year that our agency achieved The Planet Mark certificate by measuring, reporting and communicating not only our environmental impact but also the social value we create as a business.  Also, we identified our contribution to 5 Sustainable Development Goals which we are working with external experts and partners to meet. We have also created internal networks for passionate employees looking to drive our sustainability initiatives further and we regularly raise funds for charities linked to Diversity & Inclusion and Environmental causes. We provide internship and apprenticeship opportunities within the community and we educate and raise awareness internally about our purpose led activities and aspirations. Most importantly, we listen to what our employees and clients care about. We acknowledge that we are on a journey and continue to focus on improving our maturity in this space and doing our part to make the planet a better place. 


Pamela is Head of Sustainability at The Marketing Store. On Thursday 10th June she will be presenting at the Brand and Licensing summit 2021 discussing ‘Why CSR is the most important plan for 2021.’ 

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