Purposeful work Brand strategy Environment Social value


Matt Cox poses the question of whether social purpose and sustainable thinking are the holy grail of the new economy, and whether they can go together with financial success.

22 February 2023 • 4 min read

The New Economy is savage. It’s where we sit right now: a system commandeered by the customer, where brands must show that they actually care about us beyond our wallets. To do this, they need a strong social purpose. This is hard to attain in 2018, seeing as everyone is clawing to be the most responsible, thoughtful brand around.

Many of them back charitable causes in a bid to do some good. Cause marketing has been successfully used by massive names – we’ve all seen Innocent’s ‘Big Knit’ drive and Kenco’s ‘Coffee vs Gangs’ campaign. Unsurprisingly, smaller brands are following suit.

As with any trend, the more people do it – and do it badly – the more a good deed feels contrived. That’s why big brands have to adopt a wider social purpose for longer than just one campaign. It has to live through the entire organisation, raking in equal amounts of care and cash.

As a term, social purpose is ambiguous.

In this instance, it represents a brand looking beyond its basic commercial function in order to advance society. Despite cynics seeing it as a way for brands to increase valuation and power, social purpose has a long history in business.

In the first Industrial Revolution, businesses had to gain social purpose from a world upended by radical social flux. Despite harsh working conditions and the rise of labour unions, it was the reformers – factory owners – who gave workers more rights, raising standards and making their corner of the world better for employees.

This digital realm we’ve inhabited for the last two decades is now hurling us into the fourth Industrial Revolution. It poses the same challenge, albeit in a different guise – social purpose has never been more vital.

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel links major change to when the old way can no longer support rapid societal upheaval. With this in mind, every Industrial Revolution has occurred because the old economy couldn’t handle the challenges of globalisation, thus inciting widespread change. The challenge now, is in bringing social purpose up to speed with business growth, somehow making it longer-lasting.


With companies reaching trillion-dollar valuations today, a new form of brand positioning needs to be unearthed – something stronger than market capital. The path lies in sustainable thinking: creating a healthy balance between societal-led and corporate-led thinking in order to better value people and their wider needs.

And how are the world’s biggest brands striking this balance so far?

‘The Four Horsemen,’ a posse comprising Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, are taking commercial value to great heights in the New Economy. They’ve worked hard to frame their endeavours as social purpose, too – Apple empowers creativity, Facebook connects the world, Amazon is the one- click dream and Google organises the world’s information.

Sadly, any nobility that could be gleaned from such activity is sucked out by their supply chains. Amazon has a tendency to mop up demand by acquiring companies by the dozen, their Whole Foods buyout being a prime example. This is a business built around pure power, not social purpose. No company should be this big or powerful.

When brands harness this unnatural power to solely benefit their bank accounts, they’re at odds with society. The New Economy revolves around brand equity and making people feel – that can’t be achieved through this old-fashioned, tunnel-vision approach.

Societal worldviews differ between every company, hence why people support brands that align with their own unique ideologies. It’s through these shared values that we build better connections, therefore finding the key to building social purpose. It’s much more than any corporate social responsibility scheme can deliver.

Genuine social purpose can still hold hands with financial success, though.

Case in point: Amazon will surely attain trillion-dollar status soon, by strengthening its social purpose and becoming more sustainability-minded, specifically through its supply chain. It’ll grow into a yet-to-be-defined New/Future Economy beast, its appetite having moved from books to the discovery of anything. This is still just the entrée. The other Horsemen will continue to improve, building sustainable reasons to own their respective societal areas and unlock that elusive trillion- dollar status.

Of the newer entrants – such as Uber, Airbnb etc – the majority arrive with sustainable thinking and social purpose baked into their DNA (or we thought they did until Uber’s culture was slowly exposed). The ‘create average product/ service, advertise the hell out of it, profit’ model is outdated. Consumers have more power thanks to digital tools – we’re extra diligent about what we buy.

As such, the epoch of traditional brand tactics is fading. Advertisers need more in their armoury; they need to create market-leading products and services with credible supply chains and a brand purpose that looks beyond commercial viability.

From this, advertisers can create purposeful communications, optimise products and services, or create entirely new products. Without a social purpose or sustainable thinking, no new roles for advertisers can be made possible. Instead, they’ll carry on bombarding the world with reasons why people should desire something they don’t actually want.

Listen. Learn.

Marrying social purpose with sustainable thinking will be the New Economy’s holy union.

Brand strategy Environment Purposeful work Social value

Discover more in

Purposeful work