Why Your Brand Should Have a Purpose

It's Good for Both Bottom Line and the Soul

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Erin Mulligan Nelson
Erin Mulligan Nelson
As marketing professionals, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our respective brands -- how to build, strengthen and evolve them to drive customer loyalty. But I believe there's a lot more to it than that, and it has to do with purpose.

A brand has to have a reason for being. It should make a difference in the world in some way. Moreover, a brand has to have an organization that powers it -- an organization that is passionate and committed to bringing that brand to life in all facets of the company. The power of a brand starts from the people who create the experience every day. And the purpose the brand represents needs to come through at every possible touch point.

Why purpose? Consider the old story about the janitor at NASA. When asked what he was responsible for doing, he didn't say, "I clean this building every day." He said, "I am enabling a man to be sent to the moon." The purpose of his organization -- sending a man to the moon -- was explicit and apparent to everyone. He knew that in some way the work he did advanced NASA's grand goal.

It's the same at Southwest Airlines, where employees describe their jobs as "giving people the freedom to fly." When these employees are hard at work on the busiest holidays of the year, they don't think their objective is to load bags or to serve in-flight beverages; they know they provide a service which gives people the ability and freedom to spend holidays with their loved ones.

Purpose drives employee engagement, which is intuitive -- people feel great about working for a company that is making a difference in the world. My view is that brands that are not driven by purpose will have a tougher time acquiring talent, especially as globalization and the influx of younger workers shape the composition of our employee base.

And purpose isn't just good for the soul; it's good for the bottom line. Studies over the years have shown that organizations driven by purpose and values outperform the general market 15-to-1 and outperform comparison companies 6-to-1.

At Dell, our purpose is delivering technology solutions that enable people everywhere to grow and thrive. We have a relentless drive to make technology simpler, more efficient and work harder for our customers. If you want your purpose to help define your brand, consider these three fundamental truths:

Truth No. 1: Let your customers, your people and your heritage be your guide
It's simpler than it might seem. My good friend Roy Spence, chairman-CEO of GSD&M Idea City and founder of The Purpose Institute, inspired me along this journey with a quote from Aristotle: "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your purpose." As we embarked on our quest to capture and articulate our purpose at Dell, we started by exploring our heritage -- the very notion of why the company was created. We spent time talking to and learning from thousands of customers, team members, partners and experts in social sciences, marketing and technology all around the world.

We studied our history -- where we've been successful and where we haven't -- and we noticed some clear patterns. This analysis crystallized for us several strengths that became the essence of our purpose: Our deep, unique customer insight, which is the product of some 2 billion customer interactions each year; our passion for listening; our commitment to efficiency and corporate responsibility; and our unwavering focus on providing our customers the tools and capabilities they need to succeed.

Truth No. 2: Bring your purpose to life in every corner of the company
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a core element of how we bring our purpose to life at Dell. We believe a healthy community and a safe planet are necessary for our customers to be able to realize their dreams.

This means achieving commercial success in a way that honors ethical values and respects people and the natural environment. Not only is it the right thing to do, a meaningful corporate responsibility strategy has an enormous impact on a company's reputation and brand perception.

We also can't overlook the link between CSR and financial and operational performance. In fact, 86% of institutional investors believe that CSR has a positive effect on long-term business value. And many investors consider conscientious companies to be more secure investments because their commitment to enduring business practices will help sustain our world.

The most successful CSR efforts are integrated into the business model and centered on areas where the company can have the greatest impact. At Dell we focus on education and the environment.

Through our signature program Dell YouthConnect, we work with nonprofit organizations that provide education to children who normally would not have access to math, science, literacy and vocational skills. To date, YouthConnect has brought technology training and learning centers to more than 350,000 young people around the world.

Equally important is our pledge to make "being green" easier and more cost-effective for customers -- and we believe that this starts within our own company. Environmental practices must be deeply embedded into your operations, supply chain and the life cycle of everything you build, sell and service. We preserve scarce resources by designing technologies that require less energy, cost customers less money to use, and are packaged using compact, sustainable materials. Increasingly, customers will hold every organization accountable for embracing sustainability while promoting ways for their customers and suppliers to do the same.

Truth No. 3: Use your purpose as a fundamental driver of your communications and customer-engagement strategy
Our purpose guides our marketing initiatives. One example is our "Take Your Own Path" campaign, which celebrates the dreams and successes of entrepreneurs we call "heroes."

One of these heroes is our customer Linda Rottenberg. She is CEO of a company called Endeavor, which helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses. Linda was living in Latin America and found herself in a taxi in Buenos Aires. After making small talk with her cab driver, she found out that he actually had a Ph.D. in engineering. He shared that he had no way of attracting investors, building a network or even conceptualizing how to start his own business. Linda's company has helped some 400 entrepreneurs in nine countries who have created nearly 100,000 jobs in their communities.

By the end of this year, 45 people from around the world will have shared their stories through Dell's advertising, and we hope their stories are inspiring others to use technology in similar ways to achieve their dreams.

Helping people achieve their dreams is really what it's all about for Dell. It's our mandate to enable our customers, our employees, our partners, our communities, our planet and our shareholders to thrive. As a company, we know that financial performance is critical, but it's not enough. Driving innovation, creating access and building communities -- the very essence of enabling people everywhere to thrive -- is what motivates our team of nearly 100,000 people worldwide to deliver every day. Their inspiration and our customers' resulting successes come from far more than a product, and if you tie your own brand to a purpose, yours will, too.

Erin Mulligan Nelson is senior VP-chief marketing officer at Dell.
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