LONDON — Purpose can drive profit, with the right motivation and leadership, but brands must still take care not to be seen as “purpose-washing,” according to speakers at last week's IN2Summit EMEA.

Ruth Allchurch, UK managing director of WE Communications, revealed the results of a new research study carried out by the agency with Quartz Insights: Leading with purpose in an age defined by it, which surveyed 254 executive leaders across industries and geographies.

The survey found that 64% of respondents believe brands, rather than the government, are primarily responsible for driving social change, and 65% think current social and political trends are pushing leaders to define their purpose and demanding that organisations take a stand.

Allchurch said: “We have reached an inflection point for defining the role of business in society. Even in the face of economic headwinds, purpose is not dispensable anymore. Brands must consider their purpose a long-term strategy that can help them weather the peaks and valleys of economic uncertainty.”

And she said that while there was “an unmatched urgency” around purpose leadership, the research found that purpose doesn’t just need to be led by CEOs: “We all hold the power of purpose: we found that purpose leaders don’t have some special esoteric quality, and aren’t singularly talented or uniquely endowed to drive impact. Purpose doesn’t start and end with execs; everyone holds the power to purpose.”

The WE survey found that the five attributes that stood out when measuring the impact of purpose leaders were: empowering others, active communication, challenging the status quo, personal commitment despite adversity, and bravery.

To support the claim that purpose can drive profit, Allchurch also pointed to examples from Iceland, Patagonia and Unilever, as well as additional research from the likes of Kantar Consulting, whose “Purpose 2020” report of 20,000 marketers in 2018 found that “purpose-led brands have seen their brand valuation increase by 175% over the past 12 years compared to a median growth rate of 86%.”

Porter Novelli London’s director of reputation management and purpose Eleanor Turner (pictured) also spoke on the importance of brand purpose at the event, with a focus on how to avoid “purpose-washing” – or brands being seen as jumping on the purpose bandwagon rather than having a true social or environmental purpose at the heart of the business.

Turner said that for many brands, their purpose was still not authentic: “Purpose has for many become a navel-gazing exercise with the brand sitting there in contemplation, trying to figure out why they are in business and find that higher purpose beyond profit. If you don’t find out the ‘why’ of your consumers, there’s a danger that purpose becomes a substitute for your own ambition statement: where you want to go, rather than where audiences want you to go.

“It’s not an exercise in corporate responsibility: you have to be authentic, to define a purpose true to your business, and have the right/credibility to talk about and deliver what you’re committing to.”

And she added that there was a difference between social mission and purpose: “The Gillette ad was an example of a brand deciding to be purposeful by wading into a potentially polarising social debate. Brand purpose can have a social dimension, but it doesn’t have to be rooted in this.”

Turner said she agreed with Stephan Loerke, CEO of the World Federation of Advertisers, when he said: “Purpose isn’t necessarily about saving the planet. It doesn’t have to be worthy per se; it can be about taking small and meaningful actions.”