Thursday, September 12, 2019
Talking to a Legend on the Future of Purpose: Carol Cone
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to speak with the one and only Carol Cone, who is internationally recognized for her work in purpose and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). For more than 25 years, she’s helped build lasting partnerships between companies, brands and social issues for deep business and societal impact.
From 1980 – 2010, Carol was the Founder, CEO and Chairman of Cone, Inc., recognized as the nation’s leading cause branding consultancy. She went on to lead the Business + Social Purpose practice for Edelman for another five years. Her most recent venture is Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, a “next generation purpose consultancy that educates, inspires and accelerates purpose strategy, creative programming and comprehensive impacts for companies, brands, nonprofits and individuals around the globe.”
Want to learn more from Carol on purpose? Download Carol’s Purpose 360 podcast, described as a masterclass unlocking the potential of social purpose to ignite business and social impact. It’s really great and I highly recommend it. You can also sign up for her bi-weekly newsletter at Purposeful Connections.
When Carol began her work, companies and brands questioned “if” they should engage with social issues. In today’s totally transparent, social world, it is now about “how” brands and companies express their values and character through authentic engagement with society, she says. We explore more in the Q&A below. Enjoy!
MK: In many ways, you were the original creator of the “purpose” concept for business. Why do you think now, years later, it is finally catching on?
CC: The real accelerant has been social media. It didn’t exist when the pioneers in the field started talking about purpose in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There also wasn’t a lot of research on purpose in the early days. At Cone, we issued reports [on “purpose”] every other year from consumers, to executives and nonprofits. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when other firms started looking at the topic and investing in research such as Ernst & Young.
Most recently, you have the Larry Fink letter and the Business Roundtable pronouncement. And finally, you have Millennials and Generation Z with different expectations of brands and employers, and believe deeply in transparency. Companies are facing a huge war for talent, for the best, smartest people. They are competing against the tech world. And young people want to work for a company they can believe in and that has strong values. So, it’s coming from many different places today, and, together, shining a huge spotlight on the importance of purpose.
MK: What companies and individuals have stood out for you as pioneers and true leaders in creating purpose-driven organizations?
CC: First there were the early adopters, the real leaders. People and organizations like Ben and Jerry’s, Jeffrey Hollender [co-founder of Seventh Generation], Anita Roddick [founder of The Body Shop], and Tom’s of Maine. They believed – in their gut – that business was created around social issues. They were, frankly, radical, disruptive and very early in this journey.
Then, there were business people that knew they had to give back. Some of it came from the Jewish religion where giving back is simply part of its tenets. People like Robert Haas from Levi’s, Paul Fireman from Reebok, Jeffrey Swartz from Timberland, the Hassenfeld Family and Hasbro. No one has ever looked at this connection with religion, but it’s interesting.
You have always had pockets of it [purpose] happening. Just look at the J&J credo. Globally, the Tata Group in India may be the oldest socially responsible firm in the world. It started in 1868 and established from its beginning that two thirds of its profits would benefit society. More recently, the Mahindra Group – also an Indian company – was founded in 1945 with their purpose to “Rise” – to help people and society rise through innovation.
And then you have Paul Polman, who transformed Unilever by going back to its roots to focus on hand washing and hygiene with Lifebuoy. He has been the most vocal and eloquent global executive on purpose. For Unilever, it’s not about giving money away, it’s about their business. Whether Dove, Vaseline, Knorr, Omo and so many others. Another lesser known manifestation of Unilever’s purpose is Project Shakti, Unilever's rural direct-to-consumer retail distribution initiative. Unilever went to people who didn’t have access to retail outlets in India. They identified women who could take on this enterprising and highly local idea. Unilever trained them to be sales persons to sell very low-cost Unilever products, such as soaps, to other women in the country side. It helped these “Shatki women” earn an income for themselves and their families. It was a brilliant approach.
I’ve also worked with some really prescient CEOs of very traditional companies. For example, James Preston, former CEO of Avon, who, in 1992, turned to his team and asked about cause-marketing. Preston said, “We give a job to Avon ladies. We reach them in their head, but not in their heart.” That foresight to “get them in their heart” led to Cone’s partnership with the company to create Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade, which was an emerging issue for women at the time. Over the years, it grew to reach 50 countries worldwide raising over $1 billion.
And then there is My Special Aflac Duck, the social robot we created to support children with cancer, who undergo an average of 1,000 days of treatments. He’s made a huge stir in the purpose world, winning highly prestigious Best in Show honors at the Consumer Electronics Show, SXSW, two Cannes Lions and Time magazine’s Best Inventions for 2018. But most of all, his impact stirs our collective souls as he has been donated for free, by Aflac, to more than 5,000 pediatric cancer patients.
These are all leaders and companies who had a sense of obligation to re-invest in society and deepen their relationship with communities and employees. Keith Weed, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Unilever, said it best: “It’s time we stop marketing at people and we need to matter to them.” You can use the word “purpose,” “shared value,” whatever, but it’s ultimately about mattering to people.
MK: How do you envision CSR will evolve in the years ahead?
CC: The future of CSR and purpose is truly taking hold. The Business Roundtable pledge gives an indication of the growing shift from short- to long-termism.
Another example is the CECP, who I’ve been a great friend with for 19 years when they were the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy. Now in their 20th year, they have evolved to become Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, recognizing the need for integrated purpose within the organization to impact all stakeholders. Within the past few years, they launched their Strategic Investor Initiative, which provides opportunities for companies to present their long-term investment and growth strategies to Wall Street. This is a critical action…to prove to the Street that investing in purpose in the long term can pay off handsomely … this is huge.
Hopefully, we’ll also see more CEOs like Mary Barra [CEO] at GM who had to reinvent the company and re-define its purpose to evolve with the dramatic changes in the auto industry. Under her leadership, GM launched its Zero, Zero, Zero vision: Zero emissions, zero deaths, zero congestion. It’s a 20- to 30-year vision of how their business with evolve. That is how we need to see purpose evolve.
MK: What are your go-to sources for news and information on corporate responsibility and social impact?
CC: First is the weekly Just Report from Just Capital. They are really nailing it in terms of what constitutes a just company. If you want to see leading cases and best practices, I recommend Sustainable Brands. Triple Pundit is great for sustainability. And, I really love Fast Company’s Compass for cool emerging ideas, many of which have a sustainability lens.
MK: A final word?
CC: Never, never give up your purpose journey, to make it more strategic and impactful with employees, customers, communities, supply chain and shareholders too. Keep on mattering.