The power of purpose

Controversial taxi company, Uber, recently launched a new statement of mission to reposition the business. Corporate Citizenship co-founding director Mike Tuffrey shows how others have succeeded and warns of the dangers.

m&s storefront london
A Marks & Spencer store in London. The retail chain's Plan A sustainability framework has generated £625m in net benefit somce 2007. Image:Michaelpuche /

Technology is disrupting many businesses.  Enabled by smartphone apps, radical change is coming – and just one example is playing out on the streets of London, where 100,000 private hire vehicles now compete daily with the traditional black cab trade. 

Behind it is Uber and its army of self-employed drivers, all part of the new sharing economy. Famously forthright, the London cabbies are still only arguing, unlike Paris where militant drivers took to the streets.

Uber started out in 2009 as UberCab in San Francisco, and has grown exponentially ever since.  It recently relaunched its corporate branding. Out went the classic U logo and in came flexible treatment in its different markets, built around a new statement of corporate purpose: not a taxi app any more, but all about “creating industries that serve people – and not the other way round”. 

Now purpose is driving the company’s big expansion into logistics: not just chauffeuring people any more but moving food, goods and soon much more (using bits to move atoms, as it intriguingly explains).

Of course, brands have long sought a halo effect from associating themselves with good aspirations.  Cause-related marketing is generally attributed to American Express, whose support for New York’s Statue of Liberty in 1983 became a celebrated case study.

Today examples abound.  Marks & Spencer enlists celebrities like Joanna Lumley to promote its Shwopping movement. Shoppers bring an old item of clothing when they come to buy something new and Oxfam resells or donates them.  Unilever’s personal care brand, Dove, is challenging assumptions about ‘real beauty’, and its Self-Esteem Programme is reaching out to millions of young girls with school programmes that help build a healthy body image.

Brands have long sought a halo effect from associating themselves with good aspirations.

However rising cynicism, mistrust of motives and accusations of ‘greenwash’ are fuelling a backlash, part of the wider search for authenticity among all institutions.  The answer for brands is to go beyond a casual association and instead look at the social purpose or mission at the very heart of the business.

And that’s what make Uber’s story so interesting – if indeed it is a genuine awakening of its sense of social purpose, and not just a veneer of concern.  For others looking at making authentic changes, examples abound.

The carpet company, Interface, is transforming itself from a self-described “plunderer of the earth” to an “agent of its restoration” through its Mission Zero commitment – to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020.

Sandwich shop, Pret a Manger, has grown from one store in Hampstead in 1986 to 350 worldwide today. From the outset, the mission – Doing the right thing, naturally – has been central. As Clive Schlee, Pret CEO, says “Companies that put a sense of purpose ahead of profits tend to last longer and do better than short term profit seekers.”

But does it really pay off?  M&S says its Plan A approach (of which Swhopping is a big customer-facing element) has generated £625m in net benefit – the combined effect of higher revenues and reduced costs – since 2007, despite a torrid time on the high street. 

Unilever reports that brands with a social purpose like Dove are enjoying double digit growth and higher margins.  Its company-wide approach has shaved hundreds of millions off the cost base and the share price is up 70 per cent in five years.

So the benefits are clear. And if you are looking to rearticulate your mission or define an ultimate social purpose, you can console yourselves that – unlike Uber – no one dislikes you so much they’re rioting on the streets to shut you down.

Mike Tuffrey is co-founding director, Corporate Citizenship. This post is republished from the Corporate Citizenship blog.

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