by: Jennifer Rice

I haven’t written in a while, I know. I find that when I’m resisting something, it’s a sign that I need to do some thinking and reevaluation. So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, and it’s time to start sharing my thoughts.

I’ve been struggling with the age-old dilemma of doing something that satisfies the soul OR doing something that pays the rent. Yes, I’ve read plenty of books on the subject and had long talks with friends. I’ve thought about teaching, writing, coaching, counseling… even moving to some godforsaken place in the world in order to “make a difference.” I've envied a good friend of mine who took a year-long sabbatical to figure this out for herself.

One thing I haven’t thought about until recently is whether I could make a difference in my own profession. Seems a bit odd in hindsight, but I’ve finally recognized that I’ve been suffering from cognitive dissonance: I believe that over-commercialization is leading to the demise of our society, and yet I’m in a profession of helping companies sell stuff that people don’t really need.

Hmm. That’s a problem. Somewhere down the line I subconsciously accepted the message that business isn’t meaningful. Looking back at some of my employers and clients, I can see how I could come to such a conclusion. I've been fortunate to work with some companies filled with passion and purpose, but I saw them as a rare exception.

And yet there are plenty of companies out there that do stand for something. They’re serving a need and making a difference. But typically these companies don’t need much branding help; their single-minded passion is the brand, and it fuels success. Whole Foods wants to improve the way America eats. Nike wants to inspire people to reach for their best. The Body Shop stands for the pursuit of social and environmental change. Starbucks is committed to social responsibility. 

Many small companies are seeking to make a difference as well. A good friend of mine has wanted to make a positive impact on education for years, and he just launched his social education site Another friend wants to help people reach their goals; she maintains a thriving community goal-setting site called Superviva. I recently met the founder of Sustainable Marketing and he definitely walks his talk.   

What all these companies have in common is a strong sense of purpose that attracts employees of a certain mindset. The purpose creates a virtuous circle: passionate leaders and employees attract passionate customers. The purpose acts like a magnet. This is what building strong brands is all about. And yet the people who started these companies didn’t think in terms of branding; they simply followed their passions.

Execs who are looking to marketing, advertising and sales to become successful are barking up the wrong tree. They’re looking for an external fix for an internal problem: they either got sidetracked from their original purpose, or they never had one to begin with. I have heard more than one executive say, “I’m not paying employees to be passionate; I’m paying them to do a job.” Ouch. These are the same people who keep tweaking the sales comp plan to figure out what’s really going to motivate sales people. Hmm… how about giving them a product they’re really excited about selling?  Marketing and sales people are only as good as the products & services they have to work with.

So to wrap up a rather long post, I’ve finally realized that I don’t have to switch careers or join a non-profit in order to align my values with my work. We live in a capitalistic society where businesses have a huge impact on how we live. It’s time we all expected more from them. I’d like to work with companies who are either doing something they believe in, or else they recognize the need to create a purposeful brand. I’m currently working with some great folks at “evil empire” Microsoft who are passionate about helping small software companies – especially those in emerging markets – become successful. And that means that I feel good about putting my energy and time into this project.

Are your values and your work in alignment? Do you feel great about what you do and who you work for? Kudos to those who have already figured this out; perhaps I’m just a slow learner. If you answered “no”, what can you do to help shift your corporate culture to one that is meaningful to you, your co-workers and your customers? My next few posts will talk more about creating brands with passion and purpose.

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