Millennials And The New Push For Purpose In B2B Branding

The idea of “purpose” as both a customer and employee motivator is much talked about in the B2C space, but often overlooked or even dismissed in B2B branding and marketing.  However, a changing of the guard in B2B now makes purpose an absolute imperative (and a competitive advantage).

As a B2B study commissioned by Google revealed, in 2015 millennials for the first time made up nearly half of B2B purchase influencers and/or decision-makers, a percentage that is growing rapidly.

With that growth comes an increasing demand for more than just a good deal from business partners or a good paycheck from employers.  More than any generation before, millennials in the marketplace also require the clear sense of mission, vision and bigger-picture values that align with their own, and that is summed up in that one often misunderstood word: purpose.

What Does Purpose Really Mean In B2B?

In the B2C realm, purpose has too often been confused with corporate social responsibility, the ‘do-gooder-ism’ of which can make hard-nosed B2B CEOs – who are focused on revenue and shareholder value – wince.  But in a B2B environment, purpose isn’t altruism – it’s pragmatism.  This is because a paycheck or rational value propositions are not enough to move the growing millennial population. They are gravitating toward brands that provide meaning and purpose that extends beyond shareholder value – whether it’s focused on bettering society, revolutionizing an industry, or simply creating a great place to work.  And as research shows, companies that demonstrate a strong commitment to purpose enjoy better financial returns than those that don’t.

That assertion of superior financial performance may seem unlikely – unless you have seen it firsthand, over and over again, as I have.  To demonstrate the importance of purpose, I’ll explain how:

  1. Purpose drives preference for B2B buyers
  2. Purpose motivates performance in B2B employees
  3. Purpose has repeatedly proven itself to be a driver of B2B advantage (as the case history below will show)

Purpose Drives Preference For B2B Buyers

That same Google report also found that most business buyers do not perceive enough meaningful difference between competing brands to be willing to pay a premium for one over the other.

In other words, while virtually any B2B brand can demonstrate business value, so too can its competitors.  How, then, can B2B brands stand out among a sea of similar offerings, and what prompts today’s buyer to make a choice of one partner or provider over another?  Purpose can be the needed differentiator.

That’s because millennials do not “silo” their concerns between personal and business lives.  Multiple studies indicate that the big-picture, emotional rewards millennials feel (and seek) when buying Toms Shoes or Warby Parker glasses, are the same rewards they’re looking for as B2B buyers.  Appealing to personal values with this new generation in B2B can make them up to twice as likely to do business with you, versus appealing only to standard business values such as price or performance.

Purpose Motivates Employees

Of course, millennials don’t just represent today’s buyers.  They occupy many seats within your company, and they hold the future of your organization in their hands.  As the human manifestation of your brand promise, your employees can make or break customer relationships.  They have the power to influence customer loyalty and product quality.  And they have the ability to impact productivity and profitability.

Every CEO I have worked with has struggled with how to engage and mobilize employees to perform at the highest levels and achieve company goals.  In advising them, I often quote Simon Sinek, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it.”

Purpose has the power to inspire the millennial employee.  It can unify, engage and motivate a workforce , creating an environment in which employees see the personal value in helping create long-lasting business value for your organization.  In fact, two-thirds of employees working for companies with a strong, stated and demonstrated purpose, report being willing to “go the extra mile at work,” versus less than half at other companies.

Purpose can make a crucial difference in your recruitment efforts as well.  Overwhelmingly, millennials say they’d prefer to work for an organization with a clear, meaningful mission and an impact beyond producing profits.

Purpose Has Repeatedly Proven Itself To Create Competitive Advantage In B2B

Research can indicate attitudes and hint at trends, but marketplace performance is the real proving ground for purpose – and it is easy to see it drive change, growth and profit time and again.  Consider just one case:

Clarke is an international leader in environmental products and services for mosquito abatement and aquatic management.  After sixty years, this family owned business was still operating basically the way it always had, using the same traditional chemical formulas and methods of application.  That wasn’t, however, quite good enough for changing times, or for the forward-thinking, third-generation CEO, Lyell Clarke.

He described his company’s transformation from product-driven to purpose-driven at the Global Forum conference in Europe:

“We were founded in 1946 by my father and grandfather, and after 60 years we were considered a leader in this industry.  We had a significant market share and were respected.  So the question became, why change?”

Clarke went on to tell how he finally realized that his employees didn’t want to work for a mosquito control company; they wanted to work for a company that stood for something worthwhile, wanted to be part of a bigger purpose than profit alone.  That realization truly hit home.

“The key thing for me was, what would I be handing to the next generation?  Would I hand off something tired and old?  Or would it be something that my millennial son might be proud of?  Those questions were really the tipping point.”

Clarke and his company set out on a journey to uncover their purpose and reposition their brand, starting with deep self-discovery throughout the organization.  Their new purpose – to make communities around the world more livable, safe and comfortable – in turn, inspired innovative, environmentally friendly new ways to look at mosquito-control, and a bigger picture view of the role the company plays in world health.

Lyell Clarke described just a few of the results as he concluded his Global Forum presentation.  “We spent a tremendous amount of time working on the future of the company, really exploring our values, digging into our brand.  We went from ‘dead mosquito company’ to an exciting new brand [and a new business model built on sustainability].  Now we’re attracting top young talent instead of having to seek it out.  And we’re in partnerships with organizations like The Carter Center and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Multinationals are actually coming to us saying ‘We want to partner with you on public health issues because of your expertise.’  I think it’s also because of our culture, our purpose.”

Truth be told, purpose has always had power in B2B organizations, not simply in this emerging millennial era. Clarke was ahead of the curve, anticipating the millennial needs and impact, but also acknowledging two simple human truths:  First, that people recognize, respect and are drawn to other people who are dedicated to something bigger than themselves, and who work and live with meaning.  And second, that every employee, from the mailroom to the corner office, wants to find fulfillment in the work they do.

So, what’s your company’s purpose?