'People Can't Join a Purpose, But They Can Join a Movement,' Author Says
Chip Walker Offers Counsel for Brands to Authentically Align With Their Purpose
Devin: What do you think of as your superpower?
Chip: My superpower. Gosh, maybe the way to to to talk about it is sort of actionability, especially when there’s a really hard problem. So coming up with an idea or solution that’s not just theoretical, but something that’s actually doable and workable.
Chip Walker joined me to talk about his successful transition from “being a sales agent to being more of a change agent.” The proven marketing leader joined the New York-based agency StrawberryFrog as head of strategy to help organizations implement “movement thinking.”
Several years ago, Chip and his colleagues began to see a pattern. “A lot of clients we were working with, top leaders were coming to us and saying, I hear about this whole purpose thing, higher purpose. And in fact, we’ve had a consultant in, or we’ve done a two-day off-site, and we’ve come up with this purpose. And here it is. And now that was six months ago, and now we don’t really know what to do.”
“We started to realize that there was a sort of an activation gap,” he adds, putting a name to the problem.
To address the activation gap, together with Scott Goodson, his partner at StrawberryFrog, they wrote, Activating Brand Purpose: How to Harness the Power of Movements to Transform Your Company.
Chip’s career has included work for some of the world’s biggest brands. One was Smart Car, the tiny Mercedes product. He recalls the problem they faced at launch. “how do you sell this, especially in a country like the U.S. where people at that point were driving giant SUVs.”
Chip rejected a practical focus on mere fuel efficiency and convenient parking. “The enemy that we sort of identified was this notion of stupidly overconsuming, which we called ‘dumb.’ And the stand we decided to take was smarter, more conscious, consuming, particularly for your car, which was something that we ended up calling ‘Smart.’”
One of the challenges for companies when focusing on sustainability is avoiding accusations of greenwashing, which happens when companies brag about having done little. Chip offers this advice:
To avoid greenwashing, you’ve got to go back to your purpose definition as the foundation. I think what you see sometimes happening is when an organization will define its higher purpose. It's very, very lofty. It's about transforming society, making the world a better place, eliminating all kinds of higher societal problems. And yet if you take a hard look at the companies, what they actually do and their business, you have a hard time seeing the intersection between those two things. So I guess Scott and I are both firm believers that a higher purpose for your firm exists between some wrong that needs to be made right in the world and what you actually do. And that is the key to building an authentic program to activate your purpose and to talk about stuff in a believable way.
He offered an example of a failed campaign. A major brand of nuts launched a campaign to focus on pay equity. “They came out with some ads that were all about pay equality, and the way that they made a connection back to their brand was that unequal pay was nuts. So you can imagine they got just decimated by people.” Consumers didn’t see the connection between eating nuts and solving the problem of fair pay for women—because there wasn’t a good one.
He notes that Patagonia has avoided the trap despite not being perfect. “I think most people applaud them because they say, Well, you know what? First of all, they’re making a big effort, A and B, they’re being honest with us.”
Chip applauds the work of consumer product giant Unilever. “I think Unilever is another large corporation that’s done an outstanding job. In fact, their whole higher purpose is, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s sort of to make sustainability commonplace. And you can see thing after thing that they do with their packaging, the way that they operate, their factories that are trying to reduce emissions, reduce waste.”
He thinks their purpose aligns with their actions and messaging well, noting that Unilver is “more humble” than Patagonia. “In the long run, it’s going to serve them well.”
Chip says his superpower, actionability, has helped him help big brands convert aspirational purpose statements into movements that yield results.
How to Develop Actionability As a Superpower
Chip describes his superpower this way:
So I tend to be the kind of person who will come up with a novel solution, but then constantly ask, Does it work? Does it work? Does it work? So, I'm—on a good day—I'm the person you go to when you have something difficult that you need to make happen, especially when you maybe have tried the obvious things and they don't work.
It works to help him help his clients. “What are the CEOs telling us? They’re saying they don’t know what to do with [purpose]. So to me, that was clear. This is not working. We need a better way. And it also seems just like a striking fit that our approach to sparking movements was a way to make purpose much, much more actionable.”
Chip offers two keys to help you develop greater actionability.
First, he suggests using wise counsel from trusted minds to get objective about your own ideas. “Somebody that I respect a lot had advised me to develop sort of an informal board of directors. People that you respect and trust who you can go to to say, ‘Here’s what I’m working on. I think this is working. Do you agree?’”
Second, he suggests “viewing yourself as a curator.” He describes himself this way. “I’m more curating; I’m getting input, I’m gathering, I’m keeping a scorecard to say, OK, we’ve got seven ideas, five seem good, two don’t.”
This collaborative approach depends less on your native ability to develop workable ideas and implement them. Instead, you can create processes to test your ideas and gather others, allowing you to play a critical role in solving problems without needing to be a fount of pure brilliance.
You can make actionability a superpower that enables you to do more good.