Talking About Purpose Won’t Transform a Brand; These 5 Skills Will

August 31, 2021


This piece was originally published by Sustainable Brands at:

From our work supporting leaders to deliver brand value through purpose, we’ve identified five skills that every brand leader now needs — but as yet, not enough have.

From Pride to voting rights to climate change, modern brand leaders have to be ready to step up and take a strong point of view on the biggest social and environmental issues of our time. And in a world of woke-washing and cancel culture, it’s a skill that can’t be taken lightly.

We all know the stats by now — globally, 67 percent of people agree it has become more important that the brands they choose make a positive contribution to society beyond just a good service or product; and 64 percent of US adults now say a company’s “primary purpose” should be “making the world a better place.” Masses of purpose-driven startups are disrupting sectors from eyeglasses to fashion to toilet paper; while legacy companies including UnileverMars and Danone have made brand purpose mandatory in the positioning of their legion of brands.

The result is a wholesale shift in the work of brand leadership. According to Pree Rao, Head of North America CMO Practice at leadership advisory and executive search firm Egon Zehnder:

“Brand purpose is now critical to how CMOs and their teams can both respond to the consumer and drive bottom-line results. For full-stack marketing leadership roles, bringing brand purpose to life is core and central — no matter the industry.”

But transitioning from a traditional brand leadership role into a leader who can deliver real societal impact through purpose is a journey that takes commitment and skill. At Purpose, we meet amazing brand leaders every week with one very clear ask: How do I do this work?

The challenge they face is that “purpose” and social impact have been written into job descriptions, but the skills needed to deliver a traditional brand campaign and those required to support real, effective social change are not often the same. Navigating complex issue spaces, finding a meaningful brand role within a movement, working with nonprofit partners effectively, and mobilizing consumers to take real-world actions requires new muscles and a different mindset than the traditional expertise of brand leaders and their partner agencies.

From our work supporting leaders to deliver brand value through purpose, we’ve identified five skills that every brand leader needs — but as yet, not enough have:

1. Ecosystem thinking

Movements and social issue spaces are complex ecosystems with many actors working together. Unlike a traditional brand campaign approach, working within these spaces isn’t just about pushing out relevant messages or creating engagement — it’s about knowing who’s already in the ecosystem and being ready to listen, to understand where a brand or corporation can add the most value.

2. A sharp equity lens

Arguably the most valuable skill for any leader today is to understand how and where inequities play out in their business and society, in order to position their organization to counter existing structural inequities and to take an equity lens to all brand touchpoints, from ethical tech to respectful representation.

3. Movement generosity

The muscle memory of brand leaders is to identity, occupy and “own” a space. But a brand can’t, and shouldn’t try to, own a movement. To create an authentic positioning within an issue space that consumers will respect requires a brand to understand the movement that already exists, share resources generously with other actors, and fill the gaps that are most critical — not just those that are most self-serving.

4. Double impact measurement

Brand leaders are well versed in tracking brand value and measuring marketing ROI. In order to deliver brand purpose effectively, leaders must also seek to understand social impact measurement and evaluation methodologies. Once they’re able to track the impact of their activities, brands can build powerful platforms and stories that drive credibility and engagement.

5. Knowing what you don’t know

Working in challenging issue spaces often means experiencing discomfort. You never know what you don’t know. Surrounding yourself with the right people to help navigate complex issues, partners and relationships — and understanding when you’re not the expert in the room — creates deeper, more authentic strategies and more powerful brand impact.


When brand leaders are able to build these skills — or find the right people to support them — they not only succeed in delivering authentic brand purpose that drives real, positive impact in the world; they also build credible stories, protect the reputation of their brand, and develop deeper and longer-lasting consumer relationships.

Laura Quinn Interim Head of U.S. & Private Sector Lead
Choose Both: A Digital Guide
for Equity & Evidence