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Leaders from Peloton, Chobani, and more on how brands earn their purpose

October 13, 2021, 2:15 PM UTC
Leaders of Bristol Myers Squibb, Peloton, Divvy Homes, Guild Education, and Chobani spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Oct. 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Stuart Isett—Fortune MPW

Bristol Myers Squibb employees who develop medicines for serious diseases understand acutely that, if they’re successful, they will give sick people and their loved ones hope—and help them maximize their precious time together.

Two weeks ago, the company held its seventh annual Global Patient Week. It’s an event that brings employees and partners together with patients who have received Bristol Myers Squibb’s treatments, and their caregivers. “We see people’s faces, and we listen to their journeys,” said Michelle Weese, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Bristol Myers Squibb. “Celebrating your purpose in this manner is hugely meaningful to coming to work and knowing that what you do is important.” 

Weese spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit Tuesday, alongside other women executives who shared how their companies have tried to build purpose-driven brands. In some cases, their companies have identified values they aspire to, then made concrete adjustments to work toward them.

For example, fitness brand Peloton, commonly associated with affluent customers of its exercise bikes, not only has begun offering bikes at a lower price, but when the pandemic hit, it made its app available for free for 90 days. Today, Peloton has maintained some free access for customers by offering a 30-day free trial. “There’s still a lot of people who are feeling that financial impact. The reality of the pandemic is still very much a part of their experience,” said Dara Treseder, Peloton senior vice president and head of global marketing and communications. “If we want to improve the well-being of the world, then people have to really feel that Peloton is for everyone.”

She explained that one of the company’s values is the “obligation to dissent,” which means that all employees, regardless of their level at the company, are empowered to stop their team and pose a question like, “How is this actually improving our members’ lives?” Or when a new ad campaign idea is proposed to ask, “Have we earned the credibility to do that?”

Another approach Peloton has taken to make its brand more inclusive is to tell stories of real users. For example, one user’s leaderboard name was “I Need Cake”—a mom of young kids who would do Peloton workouts from her laundry room as a way to take “me time” and recharge. “You saw real people saying, ‘I am going to invest in my mental health,’” Treseder said. “‘I’m going to invest in my physical health. I’m going to invest in the things that are going to allow me to be present for the people in my life.’”

Identifying real people and having an impact on their lives is something that food and beverage brand Chobani has done at the local level, explained Grace Zuncic, the company’s chief people and culture officer. The company, which is headquartered near rural New Berlin, N.Y., helped build a new community center and firehouse in its backyard earlier this year. Investing in the community, however, goes deeper for Chobani. The company also has committed to paying essential workers a living wage, giving employees equity, prioritizing hiring refugees and immigrants, and working to eradicate child hunger.

Younger generations have a reputation of demanding their companies practice what they preach when it comes to social good, but Zuncic said it’s not just the youngest of Chobani’s ranks who are invested in these efforts. “It goes across generations,” she said. “I think everyone wants to envision a better world, and they want to feel that they’re a part of being able to create the conditions for that.”

As Rachel Carlson, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education sees it, scrutiny around purpose, rather than a mere emphasis on it, is what is generational. “There’s just so much increased skepticism amongst millennials and Gen Z about, ‘Can a company really have purpose, or is that y’all writing checks and handing them to a 5K race?’” Carlson said. 

Still, even when companies practice what they preach, that doesn’t ​​mean everything is simpatico. Adena Hefets, cofounder and CEO of Divvy Homes, shared that, in the spirit of team unity, the company recently organized an offsite in Boulder. It required proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend; however, some of Divvy’s employees have opted not to be inoculated, so they were unable to join. 

“There are things that we are not going to align on,” Hefets said. But on the flip side, when it comes to other decisions, such as setting pricing for clients, “there are things that we definitely align on, that are part of our core values.”

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