Gwen Morrison / Co-CEO - The Store, WPP's Global Retail Practice
Gwen Morrison / Co-CEO – The Store, WPP’s Global Retail Practice

President / Founder SocialVoice LLC.
Anneliza Humlen – SocialVoice LLC. President / Founder


Community and consumer strength on a local level is critical not only for sustaining local business growth, but for fuelling national and global economies. According to the Project for Public Spaces and trends analysed in Steve Davies’ report, ‘Think Global, Buy Local,’ local communities are now the catalysts for regional and national growth, rather than the result of it. Retail on a local level is the first to benefit from the health and prosperity of local communities. Conversely, it is also the first to feel local economic and financial strains.

It is therefore in the best interest of every business to contribute to the social health and wellbeing of the communities it serves. Most local small businesses understand this concept intuitively as they assume the role of both proprietor and local citizen. But when it comes to larger retail formats or retail chains, the connection and sense of duty to the local community does not come naturally. It is no wonder that large, big-box retailers and retail developments are often seen as foreign entities and counter-cultural to local community interests. Despite efforts at cause marketing, local philanthropy support, or adoption of socially responsible business practices, a retailer’s good will is often ignored or ineffective; or worse, deemed to be disingenuous by the people.

What is the reason for the skepticism or mistrust? The answer lies in the intensity of the emotional commitment by business leaders to pursue purpose over profit.

Emotion and excitement, as is well known, can be infectious. This same principle holds true for emotional disconnect. Through collective experience, the authors have found that the driving force behind the most successful retailer-led social responsibility (SR) efforts is a leader’s emotional commitment to making a positive difference. The retail leaders in this paper are unique, because unlike most others they go far beyond being supportive of SR-related issues. Instead, they actually lead such efforts and promote awareness of such issues. The difference they make in the lives of people and their communities transcends transaction.

A business leader’s inherent sense of SR has a direct impact on the way they contribute, see and solve social issues. The emotional drive they embody and inspire in others shapes the mindset and fuels brave new possibilities throughout all aspects of business. In contrast, when SR commitments are made for purely opportunistic reasons, the guiding principles of ‘profit first and purpose second’ thereby limit perspective and the opportunities for creating meaningful social value.


‘A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business .”-Henry Ford

Retail devoid of a meaningful emotional connection and a satisfying consumer experience, is at best ‘commerce’. When retailers lose sight of this distinction, all they can compete on is price and convenience versus customer preference and satisfaction of service. The focus on product sales over meeting the true needs of the people results in a retailer actually losing competitive ground. So, if access to the product and price is no longer enough of a competitive difference at retail, how else can people decide which retailers to support and trust?



This paper is based on a presentation given by the authors in 2012, at the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego (SB ’12) on the topic of ‘Retailing with Purpose: How retail brands can humanise sustainability.’ It builds upon best-practice retailing examples, shared during a presentation spanning developed markets such as the UK and USA, as well as developing markets such as Brazil, Peru, Turkey, South Africa and China. The authors share their collective experience drawing from their current work — applied research and global studies such as the 2009 ‘Retailing in Emergent Markets’ study initiated by Coca-Cola’s Retailing Research Council.The paper showcases the growing movement and success stories of retail leadership that are guided by a conscientious commitment to purpose over profit. The authors introduce an inspiring range of examples, many of which are relatively unknown given the market location and/or commitment by these business leaders to the integrity of their programme over the pursuit of media buzz. The different ways that ‘Retailing with Purpose’ can manifest itself and make a meaningful social difference are celebrated. From retailers, retail developers, and retailing as a practice, the paper illustrates how concepts such as ‘place-making’, community and employee culture building and sustainable business practices are essential in order for the value of retail to evolve beyond price or promotion. Many of the examples in this paper have not only survived the recession, they actually thrived while competitors competed on price, promotions and cutbacks. Moreover, they sustained growth, made innovative offerings, and grew customer base and loyalty. They are proof that a business strategy driven by purpose over profit can ultimately be the most effective and enduring form of innovation and success at retail.


This paper was published by HENRY STEWART PUBLICATIONS  as part of the VOL. 2, NO. 2  2013 edition of the JOURNAL OF BRAND STRATEGY.

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Anneliza Humlen is the President and Founder of SocialVoice LLC. She is a brand strategist, development leader, culture-change catalyst and writer. She has dedicated over 20 yrs to helping businesses create emotional brand connections to people, shared purpose, and social interests. She leads a global consultancy and network of experts focussed on building business/brands by strengthening the people and culture behind the brands.

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