Just what is Purpose? An interview with expert & “Good is the New Cool” author Afdhel Aziz

Stéphanie Grawehr June 04, 2021

So just what is Purpose? How has it come about and how can businesses take action to be more purpose-driven? We recently spoke to expert Afdhel Aziz, Founder of Conspiracy of Love and author of “Good is the New Cool” in the lead up to the release of his new book, “Good is the New Cool: Principles of Purpose”.

Check out the full interview to hear his take on Purpose, trends and examples from companies like Zappo’s.

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Alaya: We’re really excited to talk to you about Purpose, the trends, and also learn a little bit more about what you’re seeing and have planned in the realm of expanding on your previous book all about “Good is the New Cool” and how can that come into Purpose and what kind of principles are behind it. 

So, to kick it off, what exactly is Purpose and how does it relate to CSR or employee engagement and company culture?

Afdhel: So, Purpose has become the umbrella term to describe the bigger idea of business as a force for good.

A Purpose-driven business has a high roller goal than just making money. It can still make money and in fact, all of our research shows that being Purpose-driven is one of the best ways to make money. But, it’s ultimately there to add some value to the world, that could be specifically trying to fix a social or environmental problem, or it could be helping Humanity thrive in the broadest definition of the word.

So, when you look at what happened in the past, there have always been pockets of good in companies, right? Sustainability is being good to the planet, CSR is being good to communities, cause-marketing is how a company can show how to be good to consumers about different causes, diversity and inclusivity are being good to your employee. 

All of these have existed inside companies in silos. What’s fascinating is how these are threaded together, almost in this rope of Purpose which is becoming a much bigger idea and a much more mainstream idea, as well.

Alaya: That’s such a bridge between all these different worlds converging. And, so just getting a little bit more specific in terms of the role of volunteering and giving or taking small positive actions. You mention sustainability, or around diversity and inclusion, or well-being… How do you see the role that plays regarding to Purpose?

Afdhel: It’s really interesting. I think what’s happening is a shift in expectations about employees.

It used to be that a job was just a job that gave you money and you would then be able to take that money and put it to good use in helping the world or your community outside of work. So, philanthropy, charity, volunteering outside of work, right? 

I think what’s fascinating is the shift in expectation to say: “well, my work should have some meaning. If it’s the place I’m going to spend the vast majority of my life: 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That’s more time than I spend with my family and more time than I spend in my community with my friends. Well, shouldn’t there be some meaningfulness in my work?”.

I think that’s where volunteering and employee giving have been ways in which companies have helped employees feel like there is something positive true that work, or through being part of the company that they can benefit from. So, when a company matches your giving, that’s the company saying: “I believe in the cause, as you believe in, and here’s how we show it by, by giving matching”. 

When a company says “take 2 days off and go and work on volunteer projects, whatever you like”, that’s the company saying “we believe in you, and what you believe, and enough to say take two paid days off and go into work at it”.

That’s almost like table stakes now, that’s almost like the norm for any company. And what’s fascinating is companies that go beyond that, to say “well, how can your actual work itself now also give you an opportunity to contribute to society?”. 

If you’re fascinated by, to say, sustainability, can you weave that into your job? If you’re passionate about diversity and inclusivity, can you find a way to bring that into your work? 

Employee Resource Groups are a great example of how companies are creating spaces for employees to kind of bring that whole selves to work. 

And the truly Purpose-driven companies, the ones that go even beyond that to say: “well, let’s find a way of taking that passion you have for equality, or social justice, or the environment, and channel it into this company and innovation and business models and new products and services and catering to communities that we may not have thought of”.

That is where it gets really interesting and that’s how you can call, make them join the dots between Purpose and growth. That’s really the vanguard of businesses where we see companies are really creating space for people who show up with their full selves and to authentically integrate that into the growth of the company.

Alaya: It’s such a holistic way of looking at it. And so coming back to really integrating and making a company truly Purpose-driven and how important that is to inspire employees to bring that to their work, you mentioned ERGs and examples, do you have any examples of companies that you have seen or worked with. How are they integrating their Purpose initiatives into their culture or employee experience at their company?

Afdhel: Yes, our next book which is called “Good is the New Cool: The Principles of Purpose”, that’s what we set out to explore, right? How did companies transform themselves into Purpose-driven ones?

Book one “Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn” was about putting up a Purpose-driven brand that was about marketing. Now we’re pulling back, and looking at all functions within the company: Supply Chain, HR, Finance, Product Innovation, all of it. 

And what we’ve done is gone and looked at 27 different companies and examined instances of Purpose best practice and from that we kind of synthesize those stories into these 9 principles of Purpose that are in the book, as well.

And so one of the principles is “Purpose must be profitable to be scalable”, right?

And that goes back to what we were talking about. When you find a way to channel a genuine passion that your employees may have, into a business idea you can have great dividends, you know?

So one of my favorite stories in the book is about Zappos. Zappos is a wonderful Purpose-driven company from the get-go they are really about letting employees bring their whole selves to work. 

And the person we interviewed in Zappos is a guy called Saul David, who was on the phone. You know Zappos has a tradition, whatever level you are you have to go work 2 weeks of Customer Service, email especially, around the holidays, right? 

Soul was on the phone to a distraught, I think grandmother, try to return these shoes and he spent some time looking for what she was she needed in that she needs a pair of adaptive shoes for the grandson I think it was disabled, and couldn’t tie the shoelaces and ultimately found that there was nothing out there. That’s crazy like if we’re the world’s best shoe store, why don’t we have a product for this grandmother and her grandson and the millions of other people like that out there? 

And so that set him up on this journey, you know, to create this thing that is now called “Zappos adaptive”. It is a whole business unit now within Zappos, you can go to it on Zappos.com, and just sell adaptive clothing, shoes, apparel, everything you need for people with disabilities. If you have trouble with the zips, people who need special fabrics people who need different ways to put on their shoes, right?

And I think it’s like a 10 million dollar business now at this stage? Small in the context of Zappos sales, still, fascinating to say, this is an unmet need out there in the marketplace and this employee was passionate enough to go and say we gotta build a business office to help people and that business is now thriving and growing. By the way, the global adaptive Market valuation is in the 1.2 billion dollar range. So as a way of completely authentically starting this company journey to something that could be highly profitable and highly scalable down the line, I think it’s a great example of, you know, how somebody’s personal Purpose and passion led to them creating something which could be valuable, and profitable, and scalable, and help a lot of people in the future, as well.

Alaya: Yeah, that’s just amazing, such a great story. Sounds like they’re going to be plenty, just like in your first book, full of lots of different cases and examples.

Afdhel: Why do we put people’s stories in there? We could’ve created a dry business strategy book by just looking at companies, statistics, and data. But the reason we put people’s stories in there is twofold: one is to show that it’s really humanity who drives Purpose inside companies, it’s about people and unlocking their personal passions. Two is just to show them to everybody that’s reading the book that there is no difference between the people in the book and the people reading the book. Because they are ordinary people who chose to do extraordinary things and by demystifying and saying “this is the problem solved, these are the mistakes we made, this is how he stumbled his way into it” it’s kind of demystifying the topic and saying “anybody can do it, anybody can have an idea inside a company”. And by showing the stories of genuine human people who did it, we hope to demystify it and also inspire a whole new generation of people to go on their own journey as well.

Alaya: Imagine if you’re a company that is just starting to look into how they can make more of a positive impact, so where could they start? Where should they start?

Afdhel: Well, a good place to start is the origin story of the company, right? Most companies even if they’re a hundred years old were founded by somebody trying to solve a problem. Back in the day, there was an unmet need. So the first place we always go when we do this consultancy work through Conspiracy of Love, which is our Purpose consultancy, is we go back and look at the origins of the company and find out what was in the founders’ heads. There’s usually a nugget of something really powerful there which might be forgotten in the decades since then, but it’s worth dusting off and looking at as well. 

Secondly, it’s really important to talk to the employees of the company and find out what makes them passionate about working for the company. So we go in, and we do research and in our surveys with the employees asking questions like tell us about a day you felt proud to work for this company and why?

In those stories you begin to see this is what makes them proud to work for this company, this is what this company does that’s so special and that’s how you understand the inside of the company and how it’s different. 

Then it’s about matching it to the world and saying “okay what’s going on in the world, what do your consumers want, what are problems in their lives you can help solve”, just like Saul and Zappos. He saw the problem for a customer, and then how do you do it in a way that is authentic, that is scalable, that is profitable, but you can measure that, you can build a business case.

That is the real art and the science of how to do it and so yeah that’s how I start. That is the action point. What does your company do better than anybody else? What does the world need now?

Alaya: Have you seen any kind of trends or patterns in working across the different companies with Conspiracy of Love? When you ask employees what is the day they’re most proud of, is there something in particular that tends to come back more often than others?

Afdhel: No, it’s different from every company, you know?

But it’s usually when the company has been able to be of service above and beyond its day-to-day operations. Sometimes it’s to do with disaster relief, and then his company kind of everybody held hands and they wouldn’t help the community that was being hit by a hurricane or something like that. Or when they took a stand on something really important and powerful, people say “I was proud of working for the company”.

It’s different but it’s to do with the company being a service and the company in a way of acting in a way that’s about integrity and values. And those values are not just being some pretty words of the Powerpoint plaque in the dining room, no. When the rubber hits the road this is what we stood for and this is what we did.

Alaya: Let’s imagine you need to make the case for Purpose, what are the top three reasons you give to a CEO hesitating if it’s worth the investment?

Afdhel: Well, it’s very simple. We talked about how there is a tectonic shift happening across conscious consumers, activists, employees, and impact investors. The biggest stakeholders a CEO needs to think about, right? 

So, number one is the shift of conscious consumers who want to buy products and services from companies that do good. Consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to buy, protect, defend, be loyal to Purpose-driven companies, that data is now clear cut.

Two is about what we call activist employees, and these are employees who are challenging their leadership to stand up for their values. We’re seeing this time and time, we saw this in Google, Amazon, Facebook, Adidas where employees are standing and going: “you said these were the values when we joined so we’re going to hold you accountable to living and breathing those values”, right? Openly challenging them. Fascinating, never seen that happen.

And then thirdly, impact investors and shareholders were saying now I want to invest with my values and I’m not just looking for financial returns. I’m looking for the social and environmental impact which, by the way, there is now data that shows the companies that are the most ethical and sustainable are the ones that would give the highest shareholder value. And so, if you want to future-proof your company for the next hundred years you look at those trends across those three stakeholders and you clearly see why Purpose is so important to put it out of your business.

Alaya: What about small or medium-sized companies? Do you have any thoughts on how they could start their Purpose journey? Any examples?

Afdhel: I think that, when you’re a small company your first priority is to get profitable, right? You have to be able to stand on your own two feet and just get the basics up and running before you start to think about going out there, you know? In most cases, unless of course, you were a social Enterprise where from the beginning your whole point is to kind of do some good in the world, right?

I don’t blame companies if they can’t get there immediately and kind of put it on the back burner until they are stable enough to be able to kind of take it off. But there are numerous examples of companies which do good in their local communities to restaurants in local stores and things like that.

My favorite example from the Covid-19 hit was this company that’s also in the next book “The Principles of Purpose”. A fashion company called Tieks, they make ballet flats, foldable ballet flats, and when covid hit, Tieks did a lot of what other companies did: they donated money to buy PPE like the protective equipment. If you remember the great face mask shortage that happened when covid hit? And then they did something really incredible, which is they asked their community, which is 99% women, to sew face masks in their homes as it will give you a $25 gift card if you sew 25 face masks, or whatever that is, right? And people started sewing face masks and donating them to local hospitals at a quite incredible rate, in fact, by the time the kind of campaign ended they had sold a million face masks.

So, think about that, I don’t know how many face masks one person can sew, say 50. Now multiply that by, or divide a million by that, and you can see the incredible kind of movement that they created with people out of the goodness of their hearts helping. By the way, we interviewed Kfir Gavrieli, the CEO of Tieks, and he said at some point they even stopped asking for the gift cards. They weren’t even trying to redeem the gift or even applying for the gift card, they just started doing it themselves. And for a tiny fashion brand to have that much impact, with little to no budget, it kind of shows the power of Purpose. It also illustrates another principle in the book which is “Purpose is about being the helper, not the hero”. What we mean by that is, don’t try to make your brand or company the hero of the whole story at smacks of egotism and self-indulgence. What Tieks did was they were the helper and they made their customers the hero, they said you guys are the ones doing it, by the way, also doing it for the real heroes of the front line workers who needed the masks as well.

And so that’s where we’re going, designing platforms with Conspiracy of Love, but we always make sure we leave room for participation for everyday people to get involved and donate what we call that their time, talent, and treasure. Some people have time but no money, some people have money but no time, some people have talent which is a skill set that they can help somebody with whether that’s coding, or bookkeeping, or something like that. 

So, wherever possible it’s about designing platforms for inclusion so people can get involved in doing good. That’s what they want brands to do, there’s just a scarcity of places where they can do that. 

Alaya: What are some of the differences that we might see in Purpose programs and initiatives between the US or North America and the rest of the world, and in Europe?

Afdhel: Yeah, there are different perspectives on the role of cooperation to get involved in solving social problems. I think it’s most advanced in the United States weather is this expectation a company should do it.

In Western Europe it’s slightly different, there is social safety, right? There is free healthcare and education. There’s an expectation with the government is the one who should fix these big huge social problems, so there’s a little less expectation there.

Having said that, there are incredible European companies doing Purpose related to work. Lego is an excellent example, we have the privilege of working with Adidas, that German company was doing incredible work around sustainability and ending plastic waste.

Volvo does incredible work around car safety, so it’s not unheard of, but I think the approach is different. 

Australia is another Market where we are going to do our Good is the New Cool events. We have one coming up in August, there’s a real hunger for the topic there, as well.

I’d say the rest of the world is not there yet. So, China, Asia, Middle East, Africa… they’re still lagging, you know? But this is a global movement, the genie is out of the bottle at this stage once people realize that “I can come to work, and I can do my job, and I can help my company succeed, and I can do some good, at the same time”? Like why would you want to go back right?

Alaya: Thanks so much Afdhel for your time, for sharing your experience perspectives with us, and also sharing some insides, and a little sneak peek of your new book, “Good is the New Cool: The Principles of Purpose”, when can we expect it? Where can people learn more and follow?

Afdhel: Sure, you can go to www.goodisthenewcool.com, you can pre-order it there.

Alaya: Thank you, Afdhel!

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