“…we didn’t start a company with a mission…we had a mission that turned into a company.”

— Blake Mycoskie, founder Tom’s Shoes.


Purpose-driven brands are powerful forces with unique opportunities to level economic disparities among and within the world’s societies. They can succeed where governments may fail to equalize quality of life through forced redistribution of wealth, controlled wages, and wars. With a citizen perspective—versus that of consumerism—brands give back not only as they grow, but as a means of growth. It’s all about the innate human desire to share excess.

If you’re not familiar with Tom’s Shoes, you might want to crawl out from under your rock. Especially today, because its truly purpose-driven model has come of age among many of the world’s largest companies.  Now in its 12th year and after giving away more than 60 million pairs of shoes, Tom’s Shoes (truncated from Tomorrow’s Shoes) sold to Bain Capital in 2014 for $625 million. And now the brand is expanding its concept to saving sight, access to water, helping provide safer births, and preventing bullying.

The 3P Imperative

On the surface, purpose and social responsibility may seem self-evident, but in reality the purpose-driven equation runs deeper. For sustainability of both society and enterprise, there are three balancing tenets:

  • Purpose
  • Promise
  • Performance

Tom’s shoes found that their “shoes with a conscience” were, in some cases, robbing the local labor market from shoemakers. So, to compensate and fulfill their mission, they ensured that in such such circumstances, 30% of the shoes are made by local labor. This proactive follow up squarely executed on the two other tenets: keeping the promise and performing as a force for good. Instead of just lobbing free shoes at barefoot populations and patting itself on the back, Tom’s took its mission of social responsibility as seriously as its profitability: the two are interdependent. And it’s a lot better than a potential exposé on 60 Minutes about how Tom’s Shoes is crushing local economies for its own profitability.

This case in point illustrates that purpose isn’t simply a marketing tool or brand differentiator. Once committed, growing a purpose-driven brand is like rearing twins. The purpose piece must be fed, educated, and sheltered with as much focus and passion as its twin commercial charter. Or maybe it just takes a perspective like Blake Mycoskie’s: Mission first. Then the money comes.

Fine Line? Or No Line at All.

Purpose, promise, performance. Are they brand tenets, or purpose tenets? Or are they one in the same? To whom will your brand appeal: Consumers or citizens seeking “responsible consumption”?

Authenticity is the Litmus Test

Successful purpose-driven brands can take many shapes, but—bottom line—they are all authentic. Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap used a signature story to link the brand to India’s “Help a Child Reach Five,” campaign, a hand-washing program to prevent infant death. This effort was an example of the broader corporate vision to ‘make sustainable living commonplace’, which is evident in projects such as Foundry Ideas, a global crowdsourcing platform that looks to solve sustainability issues in the areas of sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition. Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed: “One of our core beliefs is that you cannot have a healthy business in an unhealthy society. Sustainability is all encompassing at Unilever and it bridges between environmental and social sustainability, to enable people to live sustainably and businesses to operate sustainably.”

The Business Benefits of Purpose-Driven Brands

Aligning employees around a tangible purpose provides a more intuitive platform than a litany of business-driven objectives or vanilla brand values the imported by the CEO from her last gig. People inherently like being associated with helping others. It’s a hallmark of humanity, one of the reasons we’re still here on earth. Ideally, like Tom’s Shoes, starting a business from the social mission and backing into commercial goals is the ideal. But for existing brands, carefully selecting a purpose that aligns with the primary business can potentially lower management costs, catapult innovation, and improve productivity. But it’s got to be a sustainable effort with room to evolve as things change around it.

Could it be that brands with a social conscience can save lives? Cure disease? Wipe out world hunger? Some already are. And why not? Which is more appealing to you: giving or cost?

Can you imagine helping drive the transformation from “consumerism” to “social citizenship”? Doesn’t it sound like a more meaningful career than selling fresh breath and whiter smiles?