The B2B Purpose Paradox

Corporate Purpose is all the rage.

A topic once reserved for ‘visioning’ sessions open only to a company’s most senior leadership (and largely destined to never leave the flip chart), today Purpose is a big deal. A company’s Purpose is communicated often and scrutinized even more often. Purpose serves as a useful touchstone when engaging talent, but also as a constant specter of marketplace expectations in the era of stakeholder capitalism. Somehow, a company’s Purpose – its reason for being beyond products and shareholders – is simultaneously both the carrot and the stick.

As a company that has been part of trends in business and culture for decades, The Harris Poll has been actively monitoring Purpose and documenting its ascendance. Much of the thinking has focused in the B2C space, and on the mediagenic brands that drive conversations at the water cooler and on Main Street. Partnering with Carol Cone ON PURPOSE and the ANA, however, we shifted that focus and cast Purpose against a B2B backdrop.

The results are insightful and indicate that Purpose isn’t a fully-baked concept for many B2B companies.

A paradox emerged in how Purpose plays out against B2B complexities. Companies are focused on Purpose and it’s ‘owned’ by the c-suite, but most fall short of activating that Purpose for business and social good. It’s laminated on a card, but it’s not driving innovations and investment. Employees value it, but it’s not part of a company’s value proposition with suppliers. HR teams leverage it for attracting talent, but sales and marketing teams don’t necessarily do the same to drive business more directly in the channel. It just seems unfinished.

There is a call to better understand and document the impacts of Purpose efforts across B2B companies. Business leaders would be well-served to establish hard metrics to drive accountability (reputational impacts for the company, social impacts for the world, etc.). Overall, Purpose feels like an under-leveraged asset in the B2B ecosystem, but a potential differentiator for B2B companies who follow through and fully activate Purpose to drive strategy and growth.

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