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Cause-Branding Icon Carol Cone On Building Unlikely Partnerships for Social Impact

Mary Mazzoni July 6, 2018

Carol Cone is known around the world for helping companies activate their purpose beyond profit. She worked with big names like Reebok, Avon, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble in her more than 35 years in cause-driven consulting and communications. In 2007, PR Week called her “arguably the most powerful and visible figure in the world of cause branding,” and she’s the mastermind behind some of the most famous cause campaigns in history.

In many ways, purpose has been at the heart of Cone’s life since the beginning. While attending Brandeis University in the early 1970s, she marched on Washington and helped organize protests against the Vietnam War. After obtaining her master’s degree in communications, she opened her own shop at the tender age of 30. That shop, of course, is lauded cause-branding consultancy Cone Communications, which later became part of global communications firm Omnicom.

Three years into the new business, Cone showed the world what she could do. Her biggest client to date, Rockport, was out to become a household name in athletic footwear — but at only $20 million in annual revenue, the upstart shoe company had a long road ahead. Its signature shoe, the RocSport, was a boxy behemoth with little mainstream market appeal. “Nobody wanted them,” Cone recalls, “but we realized the shoes were really good for walking.”

In the early 1980s, walking had yet to take hold as a staple of a healthy lifestyle. For most, it was simply a way to get around, so in order to rebrand the RocSport as a premier walking shoe, Cone first had to reinvent walking itself. Fortunately for Rockport, she was up to the challenge.

Cone and Rockport began a multi-level campaign to educate Americans about the health benefits afforded by walking. They signed a contract with a man who agreed to walk across the country for 363 days. Three members of his family recently died from heart disease and he was resolved to take charge of his health, making him the perfect evangelist for regular strolls. Rockport told his story as he made his way from state to state, visiting schools and educating children about healthy lifestyles. Cone brought Rockport’s walking evangelist together with a doctor from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, who studied walking and its role in human health. “We covered 11,208 miles,” Cone says, “and we told a story along the way — that walking is scientifically good for you.”

Reborn, Rockport became The Walking Company. Its revenues grew to $150 million in only four years, and promoting a heathy lifestyle became central to the company’s culture. With its help, walking shoes grew to a billion-dollar category that dominates athletic stores to this day. “Rockport decided to promote something much bigger than itself,” Cone says. “The thought was that if it grew a purpose of walking, health, and fitness, the company could then grow itself — and it did.”

In the following years, Cone facilitated some of the most powerful cause-brand connections in the business world. She helped Reebok find its purpose in social justice, culminating in the long-running Human Rights Awards for young nonviolent activists. She was the first to link Avon with breast cancer awareness and research. The company remains a leader in the fight against breast cancer and has donated more than $800 million to breast cancer causes over the past 25 years. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign? That was hers, too, and it has since engaged millions of women and over 200,000 healthcare providers to battle women’s heart disease.

Cone left her eponymous consultancy for a five-year stint at Edelman beginning in 2010, but she soon went back into business for herself. Her latest venture, Carol Cone on Purpose, helps companies, NGOs, and foundations leverage their purpose for business and social impact. Its flagship initiative, the Purpose Collaborative, brings agencies from multiple sectors together to better serve clients. “I started by recruiting my friends,” Cone says of the collaborative. “We now have more than 40 agencies involved, some with two employees and some with over 100. They’re deep experts in all facets of purpose — digital activation, data analytics, video, creative writing — and we create custom teams for clients made up of the best ‘purpose people’ in the world.”

Conscious Company sat down with the cause-branding icon to learn more about her lifelong quest to instill purpose in the private sector. Read on for her top tips on forming lasting connections that make a difference.

You have decades of experience helping companies define their purpose beyond profit. How do you start these conversations within an organization?

Carol Cone: You need to be somewhat patient. A company can’t instantly say, “We’re going to be more purposeful and more humanistic in our vision, and let’s get it done in a week.” That’s not the way it works. A company’s purpose has to be authentic — it should align with the brand, the company’s heritage, and its core competencies.

Developing that purpose may take time. You need a champion in the C suite who can set a high bar and gain buy-in from a cross-sectional team within the organization. The company also has to be willing to bring resources into it. You need dollars and in-kind donations, either from your supply chain or through external partners, and a strong commitment to make purpose a priority.

This isn’t about a grand announcement and a gorgeous ad campaign and nothing else. Putting employees at the center is absolutely key. Your blood, your oxygen, the flow of your organization comes from the inside out — and your employees can smell inauthentic actions a mile away.

You’re also known for building partnerships between seemingly strange bedfellows. How do you help companies identify a purpose-driven connection, and how do you make an unlikely partnership work?

CC: We are living in the age of collaboration. I don’t feel I have all the answers, but when I bring really interesting people together, we do extraordinary things. The most important message I can give business leaders today is: Don’t fear collaboration. Yes, you need to invest time to set ground rules, develop a shared vision, and decide who will lead the project and how to finance it, but it’s worth it. Collaboration is one of the most powerful tools we have as business leaders.

For a company to collaborate successfully around purpose, they need to start from the inside out. Every company has its own sense of what purpose means. You need to know all of those ingredients before you begin to think about partnerships. In many cases, one of the company’s existing partners has a great idea that has never seen the light of day, or you need to find someone new.

Cause marketer Carol Cone (right) with Aaron Horowitz, co-founder of Sproutel, the firm that designed and developed a recent cause marketing success: My Special Aflac Duck

Can you give us an example of an unlikely partnership that helped a company find or hone its purpose?

CC: Cone Communications took on PNC as a client in 2004 and launched the first corporate commitment to early childhood education. On the surface, it’s a bank, so why work on education? PNC has local branches across the country, and building successful, thriving communities is a priority for the company. We know that children who are socially, emotionally, and intellectually prepared for kindergarten have a much better chance of success in school and life, so empowering kids is just one more way to build strong communities.

Our team brought the idea to PNC’s CEO and suggested a $50 million commitment over five years, which is huge. My stomach was going crazy, but he looked at us and said, “Not big enough. Let’s do 10 years, $100 million.” Full-board jumped in. The company gave every employee 40 hours of paid time to volunteer, and it formed partnerships with Sesame Workshop, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Head Start. Its significant investments helped build teacher capacity, develop effective early-childhood curriculums, and lift children up.

It only took eight years to spend that $100 million, and then the company invested $250 million more. Its Grow Up Great program will be 15 years old in 2019, and it has made a huge impact on children, families, and communities.

What is the business case for companies forming partnerships around purpose? Beyond community impact, how do these partnerships affect the bottom line?

CC: Keeping with the same example, PNC acquired Cleveland-based bank National City in 2008, doubling its size from 25,000 to 50,000 employees. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson reached out to PNC’s CEO, and one of the first questions he asked was, “When are you bringing Grow Up Great to our city?” The company’s reputation for this long-term commitment to build stronger communities had preceded it.

Grow Up Great continues to help the company. Now, when PNC makes its next acquisition, the program serves as its face and a demonstration of its character. Communities welcome PNC because they see it as a partner and not just another company.

What do people most often misunderstand about your work?

CC: People think we tie a pretty ribbon on something, donate some money, hold an event, and then we’re done. That’s the most frustrating part, because when purpose is done right, it’s one of the most powerful things a company can do. It impacts workplace culture in a way that can’t be replicated.

Take Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. It’s one of the hallmark purpose-driven missions in the private sector. Unilever CEO Paul Polman built that purpose from the inside out, and it penetrates up, down, and across the company. People revere Unilever for having that purpose, but they don’t understand how hard it is. For purpose to be authentic, it has to define the way a company does business. Companies have to bake that purpose into their key performance indicators and keep things fresh with genuine engagement and fabulous storytelling. It’s one of the things Unilever does well, but this is hard work. We’re still in the early years of building purpose in the private sector.

Let’s take a closer look at those misconceptions around purpose-driven work. Some people see large companies start great programs that may have hugely positive impact, but they struggle to reconcile that work with the negative ways those businesses may impact people and the planet. Are they right to be skeptical?

CC: Really, there is no perfect company. We all love Starbucks, for example. It’s famous for taking care of its employees and for prioritizing purpose, but Starbucks still struggles with how its cups impact the environment. CVS made the hard decision to stop selling cigarettes because doing so conflicted with its purpose to promote better healthcare. You could say, “Yeah, but they still sell chips.” Yes, they do, but do you know of a perfect company? I don’t.

My point of view is that a company needs to be on a journey of discovery. A dramatic shift is underway. Companies now realize that if they engage with communities, they engage with people. This isn’t just about writing a check — that old checkbook philanthropy doesn’t work anymore. For a company to be successful today, it must find new ideas, innovations, and ways to bring its product to new markets — and part of that is connecting with people about the things that matter to them.

Our society faces challenges that are too big for governments, nonprofits, or even businesses to tackle on their own. But these strange combinations that bring aligned visions from the public and private sector together can have a lasting social impact.

What have you learned about leadership over the course of your career?

CC: Leadership is hard. You need to be bold, courageous, and inspirational, but you can’t be so far ahead that the people behind you can’t see you anymore. Your constituents want energy and excitement, but they also want to connect with a leader. Having a vision is only half the battle — you also need to show others how they can get involved in making that vision a reality.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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