How a Chief Purpose Officer Can Bring Internal Alignment to the C-Suite

They'll lay out agency intentions and bridge the gap between CEO and COO

A chief purpose officer can help bridge the gap between intention and purpose action. Getty Images
Headshot of Max Lenderman

There is almost ubiquitous agreement among marketers that having purpose is relevant to modern brand building and is bottom line-positive to business growth. This idea of Purpose (with a capital P) has two main approaches, and it is important to understand both in order to resist the temptation to erroneously use them interchangeably.
The first use of purpose is business-centric: It is the driving force of an organization that mobilizes employees, establishes long-term goals, promotes business dynamics like transformational change and catalyzes internal culture. In short, business purpose is concerned with the “why” or an organization’s medium- and long-term strategies. The second use of purpose is more action-driven: How can a business or brand affect positive social change in culture. The first use of purpose helps better financial performance and the second use helps better the world.
For most brands and companies, these two goals are either unaligned or under-leveraged. In order to do so, it’s time for a new role in the C-suite: a chief purpose officer.
Internal alignment around purpose is a salient pain point. A recent EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business Review study that surveyed 474 executives found that an overwhelming number of business leaders believe that purpose is a transformative lever. Of those, 85 percent strongly agree that they are more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose, while 84 percent strongly agree that business transformation efforts will have greater success if integrated with purpose. In reality, the follow-through with those beliefs hasn’t exactly happened. Only 46 percent of those surveyed think that their organization has a strong sense of purpose.

The future of major brands relies on bridging purpose with action, giving credence to the intention and enrolling customers into the mission.

This disconnect is a clear indication that a CPO is needed to bridge the gap between intention and action for purpose. Working with the CEO and COO, the CPO role acts as a catalyzing force in internal alignment, creating “invertising” campaigns to mobilize employees and effectively explain the strategic purpose of the company top-down and bottom-up.
Most Fortune 500 companies say they already have purpose by pointing to their CSR efforts and touting their corporate donations to various causes and charities. These efforts are both laudable and important; CSR is a large undertaking that is often overlooked and underleveraged when building brands and creating campaigns. It is estimated that $15 billion is invested annually by Fortune 500 companies in all types of corporate philanthropy, but most prevalent investment for CSR initiatives is dedicated to sustainability efforts and renewable energy investment.
Often in these companies, CSR oversight is given to vps with more than one remit on their plates. For instance, Walmart executive vice president for corporate affairs Dan Bartlett is the senior leader who is responsible for “government relations and public policy, corporate communications, philanthropy and the company’s social responsibility and sustainability efforts.” At Apple, vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives Lisa Jackson is a senior leader who manages issues pertaining to climate change, green materials, conservation, education and global government affairs. At Hershey, Jeff King is senior director of sustainability, CSR and social innovation. These leaders are at the helm of major corporate social initiatives that are purposeful at their heart, and yet such a wide portfolio of responsibility surely makes purpose-led strategy more general and less laser-focused. A chief purpose officer can lend this focus to leaders such as these and align their wide portfolio of responsibilities within the C-suite more effectively and energetically.
The chief purpose officer can also more effectively connect CSR with marketing. In fact, the future of major brands relies on bridging purpose with action, giving credence to the intention and enrolling customers into the mission.
According to The Reputation Institute and its “CSR Score,” companies whose leadership is actively engaged in CSR also show commitment to the cause that is driven by action and not just rhetoric. The chief purpose officer can lead corporate initiatives that connect CSR with purpose-led marketing efforts, like Microsoft’s “Rural Airband Initiative” in 2017, whose goal is expanding broadband connectivity to up to 2 million rural Americans by 2022, or Google’s “Carbon Neutrality and Renewable Energy” campaign, which has a goal of utilizing 100 percent renewable energy for operations.
The CPO can also work with the CMO on activation campaigns that create social impact and purposeful conversations around a brand. One can only look at the creative campaigns winning all the awards this year to realize how much purpose-led campaigns are effective at growing brand relevance, awareness and velocity. Aligning C-suite intention around corporate purpose and translating it on the brand level to various agencies would be a key component to the CPO’s job description. And it would be invaluable to any large brand looking to make a mark and take a stand in culture.


@maxlenderman Max Lenderman teaches at Denver Ad School (DAD), University of Colorado Boulder and is a member of the Adweek Academic Council.