Carol Cone (’78) helps companies thrive by doing good
By Marc Chalufour
Carol Cone has preached the value of social purpose for the better part of four decades. The name has changed—innovative leadership position was an early jargon-heavy phrase—but the concept has not: All stakeholders—employees, consumers, shareholders and society—benefit when a company focuses on more than profit, developing and promoting their reason for being in a way that benefits society. So, when the coronavirus pandemic upended virtually every sector of the economy, Cone (’78) wasn’t surprised to see that the companies with a well developed sense of purpose were quick to respond and adapt.
Businesses with strong societal commitments knew best where resources were needed. AB InBev converted manufacturing plants to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer. New York Life moved to fund mental health resources for the families of essential works who died from COVID-19. And strong corporate cultures adapted best to the abrupt shift to working from home. Some of the companies left playing catch up are now on the phone to Cone, hoping to tap into the purpose pioneer’s expertise.
“Purpose is why a company exists,” she says. “But it must embrace an authentic and aligned commitment to society to demonstrate its humanity” That’s the idea she’s been exploring since 1983.
WALKING INTO AN IDEA
Cone is founder and CEO of Carol Cone On Purpose, a strategic consultancy devoted entirely to helping clients identify and develop core beliefs and actions for the betterment of society. She’s also the founding member of the Purpose Collaborative, a network of more than 40 creative firms devoted to the same work.
Cone’s early career was focused on traditional PR campaigns, but that changed in 1983 when she met the CEO of Rockport, then a small Massachusetts shoe company. “I want to build my company in a different way,” she recalls Bruce Katz telling her. It took Cone, who was then running her first company, Cone, Inc.—a marketing and communications agency that’s still in business as a division of Porter Novelli—a year to figure out what that meant. Once she did, it transformed his company and hers.
Rockport made comfortable, if not particularly stylish, shoes. They were great for walking. Running participation—and running brands like Nike—had boomed in the 1970s, but walking wasn’t widely considered a fitness activity. Cone and Rockport set out to change that. A 1984 Boston Globe story highlighted their early efforts. “How does a company go out and create a social phenomenon?” Katz asked the paper. “Convinced that people don’t just start walking on their own, [Rockport] is spending millions of dollars on walking advertising, walking books, walking clubs, walking medical research and an 11,600-mile walk around the country.” Cone also encouraged Katz to build walking into the company’s culture by constructing paths around the office and giving employees time off to walk. One goal was to sell shoes, of course, but they also sought to change the company’s DNA. “We saw it as something that wasn’t transactional, it was transformational,” she says.
It worked. Rockport revenues went up 750 percent in four years and walking shoes became a billion-dollar industry.
“At the time, there were so few organizations tying their enterprise or brand to a social issue,” Cone says. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s, Tom’s of Maine and The Body Shop were experimenting with cause-based capitalism, and Cone was able to learn from them. But they weren’t potential clients. “I couldn’t tell them what to do—they knew it in their soul. My vision was to help mainstream brands take this very innovative way to find meaning.”
“Purpose is why a company exists, but it must embrace an authentic and aligned commitment to society to demonstrate its humanity.”
Identifying a societal goal rather than simply selling a product made the work more interesting and challenging, Cone says. Over the next few years, she helped Reebok create the global Human Rights Award, Avon launch the ongoing Breast Cancer Crusade and PNC support early childhood education with the Grow Up Great program.
By the time she sold Cone, Inc., to Omnicom in 1999, social purpose made up one third of its business—and was the reason the conglomerate purchased the firm. She stayed with the company for a decade, focused entirely on social purpose for the first time, then joined Edelman to help it build its social impact business. In that time, she worked with some of the biggest companies in the world, including Microsoft and Unilever.
A GLOBAL TREND
Cone launched Carol Cone On Purpose in a very different climate than the one in which her first company developed. B-Corp certification recognizes more than 3,700 companies for their verifiable commitments to balancing profit with doing good. Social responsibility funds allow investors to focus their money on companies engaged in social causes. Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock—the world’s largest money manager with more than $8 trillion in assets—weighed in with a 2018 letter to CEOs: “Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.” COM recently completed its first new strategic plan in a decade and emphasized a focus on impactful communication that helps society engage with problems.
One of Cone’s first clients after founding Carol Cone On Purpose was Aflac, the insurance company known for the quacking duck in its commercials. She pitched them an unusual idea: an animatronic duck that would comfort pediatric cancer patients.
Cone knew that Aflac was interested in combating pediatric cancer. She had also begun following the work of Sproutel, a company that specializes in building social robots. So she pitched the idea of a comforting robot duck. “We had to have a CEO who got it, and Dan Amos said, ‘It’s the best idea I’ve ever heard.’”
The result is the My Special Aflac Duck, which responds to touch and makes calming sounds. There’s even a chemotherapy port to foster medical play. The duck debuted at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show where it won an award for best innovation—and tallied 2 billion media impressions in a week. And, tangibly, the ducks—more than 10,000 of which have been distributed for free by hospitals—have been shown to reduce stress for children and their parents.
Ever the matchmaker, Cone is now hoping to find a way to produce a robot designed to support kids with autism. She doesn’t have a client making this request—she’s just confident it’s a good idea and wants to find a benefactor to pair with the idea.
DO GOOD, BE AUTHENTIC
Times may have changed since Cone and Rockport collaborated nearly four decades ago—due in no small part to her steadfast belief that companies benefit when they commit themselves to doing good. She has long balanced client work with promoting social purpose itself, speaking about its benefits around the world. She also continues to commission research, recently publishing her 30th study. And, as the host of the Purpose 360 podcast, she highlights companies like Patagonia that have shown the business and societal benefits of committing to a cause. “I want us to be perceived as the McKinsey of purpose,” Cone says of her firm, mentioning the international management consulting firm. “We’re well on our way.”
“From the earliest days, I knew in my gut that to be meaningful to stakeholders, a company must embrace a long-term, authentic commitment to society. It couldn’t be just a promotion,” Cone says. “Organizations must stand for something beyond the bottom line. They need to matter to people—and they need to do it with real actions and outcomes.”