Carol Cone: The original CSR and Purpose Expert

The Purpose icon spoke with Bmeaningful about her career, what she’s learned along the way and insights to the future of Purpose and what you can do to capitalize on the opportunities.

New York based Purpose expert Carol Cone is as passionate about CSR, citizenship and giving back as she is about brands, marketing and communications. Internationally recognized for her work on cause branding, she has worked on iconic campaigns including: Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Movement, P & G’s Live, Learn and Thrive, Reebok’s Human Rights programs and many more. Together, these programs have raised more than $2 billion (that’s with a B!) for different social causes.

Carol began her career in Public Relations, with a Masters in Communications living in Boston. In 1980 she founded, what turned into, the leading brand consultancy in America, Cone Communications. After she sold the business in 2010, she created and led the Business + Social Purpose practice for Edelman until 2015.

Carol continues to innovate and has returned to her entrepreneurial roots with her latest venture ON PURPOSE –  a double entendre (meaning she will keep going). It’s an innovative network model where Carol and her partners can provide C-Suite level advice guiding businesses and brands in their journey to purpose while being able to hand pick talent when needed.

A visionary leader whose super power (at least one of) is connecting the dots and seeing patterns. She attributes this ability to growing up in an uber creative and entrepreneurial environment in New York City. From watching her mother start the first off Broadway theatre to seeing her grandfather’s work ethos as a successful immigrant entrepreneur, entrepreneurship is in her DNA.

The Purpose icon spoke with Bmeaningful about why she started her companies, what she’s learned along the way and insight to the future of Purpose and what you can do to capitalize on the opportunities.

When did you realize that you wanted to work on “purpose”?

It was more retrospective than having one ‘aha’ moment. When I started my first firm, (Cone Communications) in 1980, I started because I wanted to create a better communications firm. I was working for a leading PR firm, but I wanted to form my own firm where communications was authentic, powerful and creative.

I started out in terms of loving brands and finding what was the essential truth in the company and the brand. I would ask: what does the brand stand for, what is the need in society and what is the consumer need. Where they intersect, is the purpose. The key thing in terms of the Purpose movement is aligning a company with a social issue in an authentic way. We (Cone Communications) coined the term cause branding in 1999 because we were taking a cause and embedding it into a brand.

Why is this mission of helping organization build purpose so important to you?

I continue to do this (Purpose) work because I love brands and I love marketing. But with marketing, you can’t just keep selling more stuff. A company has to stand for something. The companies to me, that go back to their founder’s ethos and story, and bring it to life in a true and authentic way give their employees, supply chain and consumers something more than just selling stuff. It’s also the best way of building relationships and being successful. And a company has to be successful to take part of its profit and invest back into society. 

How do companies create a culture where people truly love what they do?

They have great leadership. They have amazing products and they stand for something. Because you can’t innovate a product or service every single year, you need to have something else. A company needs to find one focused way that aligns with their capabilities and values. Great talent want to do their own thing or they want to work for somebody who stands for something deep and authentic.

Why did you go back to your entrepreneurial roots and start ON PURPOSE?

You can’t move as nimble in larger organizations. And I’m an entrepreneur – my parents (and grandfather) were entrepreneurs, so being an entrepreneur is just part of my DNA. When I left Edelman (my most recent employment after selling Cone Communications before ON PURPOSE), I saw the world had changed. You don’t have to have a physical office anymore. The best talent was in mass exodus from large agencies and everyone was beginning to become a “solo-preneur”, or they were creating small firms. I knew being a network model was the way to go. Clients today want senior representation, and they want experience. I wanted to have partners at my new firm (5-8 of us), and it will be direct, hands on engagement. Then we’ll use Purpose Collaborative to fill in the other pieces.

In 2010 you declared-“cause marketing as we know it is dead,” and that “purpose” has come to displace corporate philanthropy. What do you think the future of purpose may look like and where do the opportunities lie? 

It’s in connecting the dots in an organization. So much of this work is very siloed. Interestingly, often the first time an enterprise wide initiative (meaning integration throughout the whole organization and across all functions) is around a social issue. GE and eco-magination is a great example of this. 

Second, it needs to start with your employees at the centre. Whatever you are going to do you, you need an employee task force. Ask them what they feel is authentic to the organization. Employees need to be engaged in constructing it, in launching it and keeping it alive. Empowering your employees is key because they all have their own social networks.

Can you elaborate on opportunities for companies?

I just did research with Sustainable Brands, “Redefining the Good Life” and we found that the future is not just “money buys you happiness”. And it’s not just from one generation, it crosses all generations. 

One relevant finding was about “Meaningful Connections: I want to connect to my friends, family, community and environment”. And what companies can do with their CSR/Purpose initiatives, is that the brand and company can be link and the bridge creating a meaningful connection – as long as it’s done authentically and over time.This is an area of opportunity as many companies do not do this well yet.

Is there anything else you want to add?

If a company says I need you to do Purpose work in 90 days, you have to educate them on what they get and what they can’t. This is strategic work. The companies doing Purpose well are highly strategic. You can save money on advertising, branding and recruiting. But it has to be thoughtful. The fear is that so many people and agencies want to do this because it feels good and they can do great creative and win awards. But to make it work- it needs great amount of work and thought. 

The other thing to consider is that most companies that take on a social issue are not experts in the issue. You need a board of advisors and not for profit advisors to give you credibility and content.

Last, you got to have the backbone that when a client wants to do something that can hurt its reputation or it isn’t fully baked  – you have stand up to power. We’re a movement now, we all need to play our part in a sophisticated and thoughtful way.


Interested in what Carol has to say? She will be kicking off the Companies and Causes Canada conference tomorrow speaking about the Power of Purpose in a Transparent World. Email Bmeaningful for a last minute discount. 

You can also follow her on twitter here: @carolcone

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