Daniel Philips, Summer Placement Student, Royal Holloway University of London

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

Purpose can drive intrinsic motivation, increase engagement, and help create authentic connections between a company and its customers, whilst making work more fun and meaningful.

Let’s take a look at three companies: King Arthur Flour, Unilever, and Walmart, and see what purpose means to them.

The King Arthur Baking Company

The King Arthur Baking Company is America’s oldest flour and baking company. Founded in 1790, its mission continues to build a community through baking. Home to around 275 employees, the culture at King Arthur is unique – it is an employee-owned firm, meaning every employee owns a share of the company.

Suzanne McDowell is King Arthur Baking’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. After former CEO Steve Voigt retired in 2014, the board selected three executives to take on the responsibilities of the CEO, Suzanne being one of the three.

“I think at the end of my life, when I look back and I think about the people that I was able to touch and help along the way, that is going to matter the most to me.”

– Suzanne McDowell

King Arthur lays out the factors that can make purpose such a powerful driver of performance and innovation, particularly when companies are strongly mission-driven. These factors can be a significant source of competitive advantage, allowing the company to be more resilient and prepared to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Professor Rebecca Henderson from Harvard Business School shares her thoughts on the success of The King Arthur Baking Company:

“The enthusiasm and commitment of their employees enables them to build a relationship with their customers that most food companies can only dream of. In turn, that builds brand loyalty and a willingness to pay a premium for King Arthur products, and puts them in a particularly strong position to respond to the challenges that are shaking the entire retail industry.”

– Professor Rebecca Henderson


So how does this approach companies compare to industry giants? Unilever is one of the largest FMCGs (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies in the world. Founded in 1929, its conglomerate of over 400 brands spans over 190 countries across the globe with 3.4 billion people using its products every day. Unilever has a clear purpose: to make sustainable living commonplace.

Paul Polman was the CEO of Unilever from 2009 to 2019. He explains what purpose means to him:

“You need to have something where you want to have an impact and that aligns with your values. It will drive your passion. People’s self-worth should not be measured by their net worth.”

– Paul Polman


Another industry giant, Walmart was founded in 1962 and remains the world’s largest company by revenue for the 10th consecutive year, according to the Fortune 500.

Kathleen McLaughlin is the Executive Vice-President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Walmart Inc. and is President of the Walmart Foundation.

“Purpose is the why that sits behind anything that anybody does. Being able to address the biggest issues of our time in a way that is inspiring for others is a big personal driver for me and it’s why I get out of bed every morning.”

– Kathleen McLaughlin

Judith McKenna is President and CEO of Walmart International, having previously been the Executive Vice-President and COO for Walmart U.S.

“We have personal purpose and professional purpose and when the two marry together, that’s the sweet spot of really enjoying what you do everyday.”

– Judith McKenna

So, what does all this purpose mean?

Firms that are purpose-driven have huge potential to pioneer fundamental innovation. Taking that step forward requires courage and facing uncertainty to put long-term welfare above the risk of a short-term loss. Even in a smaller company like The King Arthur Baking Company, it takes constant effort and attention to maintain such a culture.

Check out some further readings below on how purposeful culture drives innovative change in businesses:

  • Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value – Michael Beer, Flemming Norrgren and Co-authors
  • Organizational Culture and Leadership – Edgar H. Shein
  • Start with Why – Simon Sinek
  • The Economics of Higher Purpose – Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor