If your company doesn't have a clear purpose, it's going to fall behind. That was the consensus of two dozen executives and business experts who spoke at Inc.'s Purpose Power Summit 2021, an online event presented with marketing agency StrawberryFrog and reputation data company RepTrak, on Tuesday. 

"Coming out of Covid, one of the things we've done as a society is we've put companies on a higher moral pedestal," said Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, global EVP of reputation intelligence and enterprise growth at RepTrak. "We've created higher expectations for what we expect a brand to deliver."

Speakers at the virtual event discussed how the pandemic has changed brand purpose: how it's defined, how consumers view it, and how companies turn it into meaningful action. StrawberryFrog and RepTrak also unveiled their newest Purpose Power Index, including a list of the companies that are viewed as the most purposeful and a discussion of what brands can do to improve their public perception in this area. Here are some key takeaways from the event.

Every brand's purpose will be different, but purpose transcends categories.

When outlining your company's purpose, target issues where you can have the greatest impact, said executives at Danone, SAP, and Kimberly-Clark, who spoke on a panel about the relationship between category and purpose. But while your focus might differ depending on your industry, you should always think big. "Every category needs to be doing its part to address these critical issues, like climate change and food insecurity," said Deanna Bratter, head of sustainable development at Danone. "These are collective--and, I would say, massive--problems, and they will take equally massive action to address them."

Talk to employees to get them onboard.

Multiple speakers emphasized the importance of discussing your purpose internally. At Zoom, leaders reiterate the company's core values at biweekly all-hands meetings and encourage employees to share examples of how the company's work affects users' daily lives, said Roxana Shirkhoda, the company's head of social impact. UPS motivated its essential workers during the pandemic by asking about their concerns and how their personal stories align with the company's mission, said Laura Lane, UPS's chief corporate affairs, communications, and sustainability officer.

To earn consumers' trust, state your purpose clearly, and then follow through.

More than ever, people want to buy from purpose-driven brands, said panelists from Nextdoor, LifeBridge Health, and Snapchat, who talked about how to convey your purpose to consumers. Clarity is important, but a simple statement isn't enough. "Everybody's waiting for you to not actually mean what you say, and so actions are what matters," said Maryam Banikarim, head of marketing at Nextdoor.

Your purpose can evolve over time.

Even if your brand becomes associated with a particular issue, its purpose can change as your company grows--and that doesn't require reducing your impact, said Amy Smith, chief strategy and impact officer at Toms Shoes. Toms was an early proponent of the "one for one" model, in which a business donates a product for every product sold. Now, it uses a different model, where it donates a third of its profits to grassroots organizations. The new approach lets the company expand its reach to take on issues like gun violence and mental health, Smith said.

The pandemic proved that any company can be seen as purposeful.

In January, RepTrak and StrawberryFrog asked more than 6,500 U.S. consumers about their views on more than 200 brands. The results revealed that perceptions of brand purpose can change dramatically from year to year in response to social and cultural shifts. In 2019, the same study found that most of the 20 companies seen as the most purposeful were brands with a reputation for "social good." But this year, the top 20 list included a mix of companies that had an especially high profile during the pandemic--including innovators like SpaceX, pharmaceutical brands like Pfizer, and makers of essential products like 3M. This change indicates that there's more than one way to be a purpose-driven brand, said Chip Walker, head of strategy at StrawberryFrog.