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Great marketing is more than storytelling, it's purpose building

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Credit: PEXELS

There's been a lot of coverage in marketing trades, and discussion in marketing circles, about the importance of storytelling in the modern marketing toolbox. Often, I'm left thinking these discussions about the importance of storytelling represent an incomplete – or even short-sided– view of what's needed for companies to successfully connect with today's savvy audiences, B2C and B2C alike.

People don't just want stories. They want to do business with companies that are authentic, that stand for something meaningful, and that demonstrate these ideas in everything they do. Stories that aren't linked to authenticity and purpose run the risk of missing the moment of connection – or worse, leaving people feeling "sold to" (and not in a good way). Marketing leaders who understand this distinction not only have an opportunity to deepen connections with their customers and grow their business – they can have a lasting influence on the direction of their company and their brand well beyond marketing. Here are a few things to consider:

Do the hard work to define your purpose

There are increasing examples of modern brands that have been at the forefront of teaching consumers, and business people, that social responsibility and revenue growth are not antithetical. Companies like TOMS, Warby Parker, and Patagonia have paved the way toward more mindful consumption, and taught us that companies can do good and do well financially at the same time. Centering their business – including policies, actions and yes, their marketing – around a unique and clearly-defined purpose can be an integral part of what distinguishes a brand and earns deep customer loyalty.

At CareerBuilder, we realized that our purpose is rooted in an idea that goes beyond the valuable HR technology solutions and services we provide. Rather, it's anchored to what our solutions and services enable our customers and users to do for themselves. While others in our space focus on product features and functionality, we've tapped into our unique purpose – to help people build a life that works. This connects us to our history, to a modern view of work at a time when work is changing dramatically, and into our role in helping people and companies connect.

Make purpose the domain of all functions, not just marketing

It's important for companies to build purpose into their marketing and communications efforts. But that's not enough to make a company's purpose, once defined, take flight. Purpose has to become an essential guide for policies and procedures, product development and partnerships, employee engagement and culture. Patagonia, for instance, gives 1% of sales to environmental causes, but its commitment to that mission extends to its own transparent supply chain; the company measures Patagonia's environmental impact "from crop to fabric to finished garment." In other words, the company's purpose informs every aspect of how they do business and make decisions, far beyond public-facing marketing efforts. That said, Marketing teams can be powerful influencers of how purpose comes to life authentically across the business internally, as well as in brand stories and marketing campaigns externally. And increasingly, I see the opportunity for my Chief Marketing Officer peers to take on the role of Chief Purpose Officer as well.

Similarly, at CareerBuilder, we knew that if our purpose was to help people build a life that works, we had to rethink skill-building and recruiting strategies. We know from our own data sets, analytics, and deep learning that a person's skills and real-world experience have more to do with their ability to succeed at a job than anything, including a pedigreed education. So we decided to drop the college degree requirement for the majority of our CareerBuilder job listings. Building a life that works meant opening our minds to different kinds of candidates, and has changed how we operate in our own HR department.

Own your mistakes, with purpose

It's essential to articulate your purpose and demonstrate how your company lives by it. But no one, no company is perfect. I find that a clear purpose can be an effective guide for how to navigate mistakes too. Starbucks is a great example of the power of purpose in times of crisis. For decades, Starbucks has been focused on being "the third place" -- a community gathering place between work and home. They've thoughtfully designed spaces and created a work environment with benefits to attract and retain great team members. But when two men were arrested at Starbucks in 2018 for having a business meeting without buying anything – and one of them was denied use of the restroom (at the time, the company's policy stated that restrooms were for paying customers only) – the company was clearly not living its purpose that day.

The backlash on social media was swift and brutal. But Starbucks reacted quickly by changing its policy. "Any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer," Starbucks declared. And a month after the incident, the company temporarily closed its stores to take employees through racial bias training. They didn't just try to smooth things over with an apology. They owned the mistake, took decisive action and showed the community that Starbucks was serious about living its purpose.

Don't just talk about purpose, show it

Consumers are savvy about brand messaging and can easily tell the difference between authenticity and spin. Celebrity marketing, for instance, has been effective for some brands. But relying on someone else's fame and reputation to tell the world that your product or service is great can also be risky. Who really controls the message? What happens if there's a conflict in purpose or values? It's tempting to borrow on the equity of others – and I know firsthand that it can drive marketing outcomes. But at a time when people crave connection to something real, I think it's more powerful, and effective, to let your brand speak for itself by showing the world what you stand for, and making sure your purpose shows up in everything your company does.

PayPal demonstrated this elegantly last month when CEO Dan Schulman announced that the company was setting aside $25 million to make interest free cash advances to federal employees who were experiencing financial hardship because of the government shutdown. This was clearly a purpose-driven decision and a lesson for all marketers: let the message be about what you choose to do, not just what you choose to say.

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