Last Brands Left Standing

In 1991, I wrote an article for Adweek entitled “Principles as Important as Product.” In it, I explored the idea that “what a company stands for is more important than what it sells.” Consumers were just beginning to pierce the product veil and ask about the companies behind the merchandise — their values and principles.

So much of the current financial disaster stems from a series of complicated miscalculations and mismanagement of the core principles of our free enterprise system. Those mistakes will be debated for decades. The question before us is, when the water recedes from this tsunami, who will be left standing?

I believe, just as I wrote nearly two decades ago, that companies and brands that have no purpose other than to make and sell stuff won’t be left standing.

Rather, it’s the brands, organizations and leaders who are driven by a purpose-one based on values and value that improve the lives of all the stakeholders they touch-that will stand tall through adversity. Purpose-based organizations will command both respect and profitable market share.

So what is purpose and why should you want it? Purpose is the definitive difference you are trying to make in the marketplace and the world.

If you have a purpose and can articulate it with clarity and passion, then everything makes sense and everything flows. You feel good about what you’re doing and clear about how to get there. You’re excited to get up in the morning and sleep easier at night. If you don’t have a clear purpose, everything feels a bit chaotic, harried and maybe even meaningless. Meetings may go on for hours with arbitrary decision-making criteria being thrown out by anyone with an opinion. You may launch totally new business plans year after year. Without a core purpose in place, the way forward is often a real challenge.

While so much business news is bad, there is good out there with those companies, brands and leaders who believe in and practice the power of purpose.

Why should CEOs and CMOs want to put purpose first during these economic times? Because it drives performance. Purpose is not some soft or nice thing — it’s everything. If you want to jump-start your company and rejuvenate your culture, and start driving sales and profitable market share, start with discovering and bringing to life your core purpose. Purpose trumps everything else — strategy, tactics, mission and vision. If you start with purpose, everything else falls into place.

In my 1991 article, I suggested that “it is up to us now to convince our clients … to prepare to meet the coming consumer demand that says what you stand for is as important as what you sell.” Well, that time has come. We polled the American public last November and discovered that 88 percent of them agree that “what a company stands for is more important than what it sells.”

The great brands of tomorrow will rise from the destruction, led by purpose-based leaders who will vitalize and champion a corporate culture based on making a difference and improving people’s lives. I believe the role of the ad agency will be to become their partner in purpose, to use every ounce of creativity we have to ensure that the brands that step up and make a positive difference are known, above all the rest. Otherwise, we are robbing people of the opportunity to spend their money on brands that stand for something they can believe in.

When a tsunami hits you, your company or your country, you have three choices: do nothing, rebuild exactly what was there before, or start building what should have been built in the first place. In the midst of our current economic tidal wave, that question is upon us: Are we going to do nothing and hope the government bails us out, will we rebuild what was here before or are we going to build and operate our businesses in ways that we should have been doing all along?

It’s time to build the real New Economy. One based not on building whatever we can build, selling whatever we can sell and hoping that consumers keep spending more than they have on things they don’t need. Those days are over. Consumers are looking for products and services that improve their lives. They are looking for values and value for themselves, their families and our increasingly global community.

When we emerge from this crisis, those leaders and brands that stand on purpose by serving the greater good will be the only ones left standing.

Roy Spence is co-founder, CEO of GSD&M Idea City and co-author of It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For.