It is a common refrain of the anti-capitalists, the idea that greedy companies exploit their workers for extra profits, and that their overall effect on the economy and the world at large, is a negative one. We hear this refrain every time there is an economic summit, and every time the titans of industry gather to plot the future course of the economy and their individual companies.

Is capitalism such a cutthroat place, with the most ruthless business people rising to the top and exploiting their way to greater and greater profits?

While the knee-jerk answer may be yes, the actual numbers do not bear that out. In the real world, the companies that mean more, and give more, are often the ones that rise up. Great companies -- ones with a beating heart and a genuine care for people and planet -- see the world differently, and the entrepreneurs who started them wanted to change the world for the better.

Far from being greedy capitalists, the founders of those companies sought to do well by doing good, embedding sacred meaning into their company's DNA. The money, in many ways, came as the result of the search for meaning. They make money because they have an authentic purpose, they didn't engineer a purpose so they could make money.

With all the purpose-washing going on in business today, consumers easily spot inauthenticity and turn in disgust when they suspect ulterior motives. For doing well by doing good to work successfully, you must understand the difference between articulating a purpose and truly living it consistently across your organization. It's not just an element of the marketing mix; it's a north star that aligns all behavior and activities.

Companies as diverse as Apple, Starbucks and Panera Bread have demonstrated again and again that creating meaning, and a new way of doing things, leads to greater profits, and more opportunities for everyone. The most successful companies tend to be the ones that identify something larger, those that seek to provide meaning and purpose instead of just goods and services.

The cult of Apple may be the best example of how creating meaning can create enormous profits. Steve Jobs was notoriously purposeful about Apple's deeper meaning and contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind. Apple is known for its fanatic fans - men and women who are willing to line up for hours, or even days en masse, just for the privilege of shelling out $700 on a new smartphone. While there are dozens of cheaper smartphones on the market, they don't possess the meaning that propels Apple fans out in the middle of the night to buy the latest model.

Starbucks is also famous for its meaning, and it too has its dedicated fans and followers. By providing a sense of community and a spot for people to gather, Starbucks elevated the corner coffee shop and gave it a true sense of meaning. "Our core purpose and reason for being has always been driven by a set of beliefs steeped in humanity," said Howard Schultz in a recent press release.

Before Starbucks came along, people didn't linger over their morning coffee, as their goal was to get in and out as quickly as possible. In a post-Starbucks world, coffee fans hang out with their friends, work on their screenplays and connect to the office from their laptops. What once was just another stop in a busy day has become a destination, and a source of meaning.

Meanwhile, sandwich chain Panera Bread (recently acquired at a $7.5 billion valuation) has become famous for giving back to the community, and for giving its food away to those in need. Their nonprofit Panera Cares community cafes serve the less fortunate, providing them with nutritious meals and asking only that they pay what they can. The company famously gives away its unsold bread at the end of every day through its Day-End Dough-Nation program, swelling the shelves of local food banks and making the communities where they operate better places to be. Panera's mission is simple: so all may eat with dignity.

It is clear that creating meaning and giving back are good for profits and the bottom line. Smart entrepreneurs continue to look for ways to create meaning and a sense of purpose through their brands. Personal branding has also become a huge phenomenon, with individuals creating their own sense of meaning and trading on that meaning to make a living. It is clear that creating meaning, and giving back to their employees and the world at large, is a major profit driver. Far from the stereotype of the greedy capitalist, today's leaders are looking for something more -- a sense of meaning and accomplishment that money alone cannot buy.

Published on: Apr 11, 2017