Starting a purpose-driven company means working with intent. Inherently, your company’s story is driven by pride and meaning — which makes it much easier to tell and, frankly, to sell.
While every business has a story to tell, a socially conscious, purpose-driven message stands out from the pack. Your company represents more than new and improved packaging or a timesaving function. You have a captivating story — what David Aaker, the godfather of modern branding, calls a “higher-purpose brand.”
In 1991, I started Oliver Russell, an ad agency that builds brands for purpose-driven companies and today is a certified B Corporation. My experience tells me that purpose-based stories are unique. When you share yours successfully, you vastly improve your chances of thriving as a social enterprise and solving the world’s social and environmental problems in the process. But it helps to know where to start.
Begin from the inside by inspiring employees
Let’s first take a look at how to inspire employees to advance your socially responsible brand. The basic idea here is to communicate your purpose to employees first, and continually thereafter, because your business’s ultimate success rests on their shoulders, in their voices, and in their hearts. They’re your best sales team, but they’re also really busy. As a leader or founder, your job is to get them up to speed, facilitate buy-in, and motivate them before you start worrying about external audiences.
5 ways to create “employee evangelists”
1. Appoint a champion among your employees who can direct purposeful engagement in your company.
This might include weekly or monthly lunch meetings to educate your team on the many aspects of purpose. If yours is a large company across many locations, perhaps webinars or podcasts are the right communication vehicle. The main objective is for this to be a peer-led, rather than a top-down, approach.
2. Engage around values.
Ask your employees to memorize your company values. If you have three to five core values, this won’t be tough. Spot-test people in meetings and reward correct answers, even in a small way. Maybe commit to beginning regular staff meetings with a discussion about your values — what they mean to employees, how they’re playing out in reality, how they factor into day-to-day company decisions — and answer any questions that come up.
3. Fly your certification flag.
Are you a fair trade or organic food company? GoodWell-certified as a humane and ethical employer? A B Corporation? Put that certification symbol on your business cards, and consider adding your purpose statement to cards as well. Ditto for the signature line of all email accounts. Individual certification bodies may even have a promotional toolkit with resources to help your company make its hard work stand out.
4. Hash(tag) it out on social media.
Provide your employees with a hashtag and sample messages in case they want to use their personal networks to share your purpose.
5. Write a manifesto.
A manifesto is a motivating proclamation of your company’s purpose — it might be a workplace poster, an online resource, or the creative theme for a video. It should rally employees, but it can also serve double duty as a powerful public declaration to external constituencies who seek to align their values around businesses they support.
Now, it’s time to share your story with broader stakeholders
The story of your purpose-driven company ultimately needs to help you reach customers, so after you’ve created employee evangelists, you’ll need to direct your efforts to a broader audience.
And customers are not the only stakeholders who may care about your socially responsible enterprise. Consider your suppliers as well: By educating your suppliers about your purpose, you take the first step toward converting the business partners in your supply chain to seek maximum impact by using their businesses as a force for good. Just because you’re the one signing the check doesn’t mean you should overlook this key audience — you may even want to choose suppliers (or give preference) to those that share your values.
Local government and civic organizations are another audience to watch. Telling elected officials, economic development leaders, and local chambers of commerce about your purpose helps shift perspectives in the business community and correct assumptions about business owners’ values. Some governments give preferential treatment on public contracts for businesses that adopt and demonstrate an intentional commitment to sustainable operations.
5 ways to reach out to external audiences
1. Create a great website.
To reach your audiences, you need a kickass website to serve as the sun at the center of your brand’s galaxy. All information about your purpose should reside here, not only for visitors, but also as a content marketing distribution mechanism for sharing — and expanding — your sphere of influence on social media and through email marketing.
2. Be a thought leader.
Writing is key to storytelling, and regardless of industry, your company will benefit from actively blogging about your purpose. Weave purpose into your editorial mix alongside products, services, and other topics. The original content you generate positions you as a thought leader and makes you sound smarter about a given subject. Your company blog is also a great place for employee education and provides baseline content for posting on social media. [Editor’s note: Interested in contributing to Conscious Company? Find out more here.]
3. Publish an annual report.
Many companies are already used to publishing annual reports about their impact and triple-bottom-line metrics. Even if yours is not, it’s still a great tool to consider as annual reports voluntarily communicate your success over a period of time.
The format can be as creative as you are, or aren’t. Like traditional financial annual reports, it should communicate your numbers — the measurable social impact you’ve achieved, the lives you’ve affected, the seeds you’ve sown. It also affords you a valuable publicity opportunity to craft a news release highlighting your yearly results and alert the news media to the report’s availability.
4. Make the most of social media.
Another communications vehicle that may be tempting to ignore is social media. But a social media vacuum sends a message about your company, and it’s not a good one! Learn the most common social impact hashtags: #socent, #socinn, #socimp, and #impinv. Participate in relevant social media discussion groups that would be interested in your news — and from which you would likely benefit by joining. As an example, LinkedIn has forums for discussing social entrepreneurship and cause marketing.
5. Don’t forget earned media.
One of the most affordable, though challenging, ways to tell your story is through earned media, better known as public relations. As an example, CSRwire and TriplePundit recently merged into a single entity and now work like a traditional news wire, carrying your news to editors, reporters, and online influencers.
While not free, these tools offer incredible exposure and reach for your business, driving traffic to your website and providing valuable links that will boost website search engine optimization (SEO). They make it easier to ensure your news release hits the right reporters and provide contact information for your industry’s trade publications. Such outlets are likely be interested in this news angle as an emerging trend, and this can help position you as a leader in your industry.
[Editor’s note: For more on earning media attention, check out “Step Up, Speak Out, Impact Policy — An Advocacy Guide for Responsible Business Leaders,” which we created in partnership with the American Sustainable Business Council to help you learn how to use your business voice to be heard by your government and the media. Also, here’s how to let us know about a company we should cover.]
The bottom line
No one knows your brand’s story better than you do. As you branch out and share this story with more and more stakeholders, remember to keep your internal conversations going. Employees will continue to be some of your most valuable resources, and they can help you keep your message strong and consistent as you grow.
Russ Stoddard is the founder and president of Oliver Russell, a public benefit corporation in Boise that builds brands for purpose-driven companies whose products, services and business models benefit society. He’s a leader in the certified B Corporation community — the new classification of companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental issues. His book, “Rise Up: How to Build a Socially Conscious Business,” was published in September 2017. Find out more at russstoddard.com.