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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

When Purpose becomes Social Purpose

At a time when our society needs it the most, we are facing a crisis of leadership right around the world. Society’s traditional leaders are no longer trusted to do what is right. We are losing our faith in Government leaders, religious leaders, journalists and corporate CEOs.

Yet there’s a ray of light. According to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, people are more likely to trust their own employer’s CEO than any of the former-mentioned leaders. In fact “my employer CEO” comes second only to scientists, amongst most trusted institutions.*

What’s more, today a majority of people believe that brands can be a powerful force for change. Consumers expect brands to represent them and solve societal problems.**

Employees also have an expectation that their CEOs should lead. No less than 92 per cent believe it’s important that “my employer’s CEO” speak out on one or more of (a range of) issues” including training for jobs of the future, automation’s impact on jobs, ethical use of tech, income inequality, diversity, climate change and immigration.***

These are issues that traditionally we’ve expected governments to tackle. Yet here we are, looking to business leaders to take on the mantle of societal leadership.

It’s a recognition that those who we have traditionally looked to for leadership are failing us when it comes to some of the big challenges in society today.

All of this amounts to an expectation that business, brands and business leaders stand up to do the right thing for people and society. It’s an invitation for business and its leaders to weigh in beyond the historical remit of business and to take a stand on issues where “we the people” are crying out for leadership.

These are the needs and expectations of business today. Clearly, they’re very different to what they were twenty years ago. What has this got to do with Purpose?


Purpose – knowing the “Why” that inspires your products or services is no longer contained to finding an inspirational context for your products or services. It’s not just about contextualising the business you’re in today. It’s about the change that you’re committed to creating in society through and beyond your products or services.

Purpose can no longer be just about what you do in your business. It is equally about identity; who you are and how you show up for the common good.

Purpose today – if we are to define it according to the expectations of consumers, employees and a whole range of other stakeholders – is actually Social Purpose.

“Social Purpose is about businesses creating change that society needs, through and beyond their products and services. Social Purpose businesses think about how they can make things better rather than just making better things. Their growth is a positive force in society.”

Social Purpose is the most powerful expression of Purpose. Those organisations that lead with a Social Purpose are attracting and retaining quality employees who are inspired by what the organisation is aspiring to achieve. These people are emotionally invested in the work they do. So not surprisingly, these organisations are performing better financially than other organisations and they are proving to be more resilient during times of crisis.

Yet how many businesses are meeting this definition of Purpose?

Not nearly enough, but the movement is growing faster than ever.

Your choice as a business leader or influencer? Lean into the discomfort that doing something different inevitably creates. Embrace the opportunity that these needs and expectations create. Lead from the front.

The alternative is to wait for the mass wave that will come. Followers rarely achieve the rewards that come to the leaders of new movements.

*2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. TRU_PEP. Below is a list of groups of people. For each one, please indicate how much you trust that group of people to do what is right. 9-point scale; top 4 box, trust. Attributes shown to half of the sample; “My employer CEO” only shown to those that are an employee (Q43/1). Gener al population, 27-mkt avg.

**2018 Edelman Earned Brand. Belief-driven buying segments. 8-mkt avg. Belief-driven buyers choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.

2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust? Mobile Survey.

Belief-driven buying segments. 8-mkt avg. See Technical Appendix for a detailed explanation of how the Belief-driven buying score was calculated.

***2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. CEO_ISS. How important is it to you that the CEO or head of the organization you work for speaks out publicly about each of the following issues? 9-point scale; top 4 box, important. Question asked of those who are an employee (Q43/1). Issues is a net of codes 1-7. General population, 28-mkt avg. CEO_AGR. Thinking about CEOs, how strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? 9-point scale; top 4 box, agree. Question asked of half of the sample. General population, 25-mkt avg.

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