Brittany Hill leads Catalist, a company designed to make sense of the purpose movement. She talks with Adam about the strategy she and her team employ with brands to apply purpose where it makes sense, and when to opt out.

Listen here:


Adam Pierno: All right. Welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. This show is going to be different. I think I say that every time, Jesus, but it is going to be different because we’re taking a look at a new facet of strategy and some new dimension of what we’re doing from a strategy perspective and from the idea of purpose. Today I have a guest, the CEO and co-founder of Catalist, Brittany Hill. How are you, Brittany?

Brittany Hill: Hi, I’m good. Thank you for having me.

Adam: She’s dialing in from beautiful Texas. I never get to Austin but I would love to spend some time there. How is it there today?

Brittany: It’s actually very beautiful. Yes, we love it here in Austin. The secret’s out, though, a lot of people move in here.

Adam: I know. I know it’s crowded. Phoenix is the same way. There’s something like 300 people move in here a day. Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are with Catalist and then I think in your case, we’re going to have to explain to people what Catalist is, so people have a sense of where this discussion is going to go?

Brittany: Sure. No problem. My entire career I’ve spent in the social impact space. I’ve sat in the Corporate Social Responsibility seat at various companies, entertainment foundations, and have produced various events that had social impact slants, and also set in the nonprofit seats and understand the nuances of specifically raising money from the corporate sector as a nonprofit professional. Then for the past decade-plus, have built and sold various social good consultancies that really specialized in building strategies for both the nonprofit and the for-profit side on how to work better together.

I have really enjoyed working with blue-chip nonprofits, the UNICEF’s, the American Hearts, the March of Dimes and World Visions of the world, and also Fortune 1000 companies.

Throughout that, I really learned that there were two main challenges that we kept hearing from both our nonprofit and our corporate clients. It was really around building fruitful partnerships with each other, finding the right partners. I’m sure we’ll dive into it, but the purpose is such a big part of a brands landscape and an ocular, especially in today’s environment. That a brand stands for something and is no longer the exception, but the expectation.

We knew that finding the right partners on both sides of the aisle was a big, big issue that we didn’t feel like human capital alone was doing a really good job of solving. Also then measuring the effectiveness of those partnerships, both on the community but on the respective bottom lines. Essentially, just really answer both of your questions. That’s who I am and how I’ve got to the place where we are.

But, really why we created Catalist was to build a software platform that borrows from these online dating applications of the world to help broker really smart data-driven and methodical relationships between the public and private sectors, and then really measure what they’re doing to make sure that they’re valuable investments, that they resonate with key stakeholders, and that they’re doing what they are intended to do in terms of supporting our communities at large.

Adam: I love it. We connected when I read your– something you had posted on LinkedIn, got shared with me. I saw how intertwined the who you are and what you’re doing are. I thought, “Well, this is this is really interesting. I want to know more.” Thank you for that context of how you got started. Let’s start with the people listening to this show are brand strategist. They’re thinking about how to change the perception of a brand or how to improve the perception of a brand, and we wrestle a lot with brand purpose.

There’s a lot of back and forth. If you look at the Edelman study that they put out, brands with purpose have been overachieving on business goals and brand goals. Can you speak a little bit just to what you’re seeing in terms of purpose-built organizations or the difference between organizations that are purpose-built versus those that bolted on and what the impact is there?

Brittany: Those are a lot of big questions. [laughs]

Adam: I realized as I was sitting finishing up, I realized that was five questions in one. You can parse it out, however, you’re comfortable.

Brittany: Of course, I think it’s not just me, I think a lot of brand strategists and folks that live in the brand world every day have heard it probably in various scenarios of purpose. It’s maybe the 4P in the marketing mix now, brands stands for more than now just marketing and PR that that purpose or social impact should be part of that entire landscape. I think we all know this and we hear this.

I think brands now know that just being philanthropic, what we’ve really seen is maybe the biggest trend in our social impact nuanced area is that it’s no longer whether you call it purpose or social impact, or corporate social responsibility, or whatever terminology or vernacular you use, it all falls under, “What do you stand for as a brand?” That question has really evolved over the last, I would say, five years for a long time. But really over the last five years, it’s really come into the golden age of purpose. It’s no longer good enough from stakeholders, from your consumers, from your employees, from your investors.

We’re all probably familiar with Larry Fink in BlackRock in his open letter in the recent article a couple days ago actually talking about the importance of even from an investment level investing in purpose-driven companies, because to your point, they do outperform others. It’s become even more important. It’s not good enough anymore to just be a philanthropic company, to just give away money, but really to intertwine and weave in the, “What do you stand for? What are you going to do to make our world as a corporation better tomorrow than it is today?”

That’s the big question that we’ve seen evolve. I was actually– it’s funny, this is pretty timely, I was hosting with my colleague around table yesterday in Los Angeles with a lot of very phenomenal brands, about 20 different brands headquartered in the LA area. They ranged from everyone, from a large global car manufacturer to a multimedia company, global media company, to startups and big corporations.

To answer your last question of how, it sometimes seems easier, I would say, for the companies in the last 5, 10 years that have been built around purpose, that have been built as a benefit corporation, that started with the purpose at the core. Not only from a perception standpoint, that it resonates more with consumers, and it resonates more with employees, we know that millennials and most generations outside of the millennials want to work for an employer that stands for something. It also seems to be easier for, let’s say, the corporations or companies that have started from that place to also execute purpose from an infrastructure perspective.

By that, I mean, where does purpose fit within the org chart of the company. We have talked to a lot of hundred-year-old, 50-year-old companies that have always done business a certain way, and are now understanding they have to be a purpose-driven company. It’s not okay to just put out an ad campaign and not have any meat behind it, or to put out a purpose-driven mission statement, but not really be walking the walk.

From that perspective, we are seeing this evolution that’s really been driven by those big corporations, startups, newer companies that are built around the idea that you have to do something more than just create a product or produce widgets or offer a service, you have to give back in a purpose-driven way and it has to be part of your fabric. We feel like that’s really been the driver for the rest of corporate America to say, “Oh, wait a second, what are we going to stand for, and how are we going to figure that out?” That’s the big question. Obviously, that’s why Catalist exists, is to help brands really truly identify what issues matter to their stakeholders how does that, combined with the core values of the company, what does that look like? What did that look like 5 years ago, 10 years ago, what does that look like now? How should that evolve and how should that really play out in terms of cost departmental support?

Adam: Yes, and so when you have a mature company that does want to add purpose or giving or– I guess purpose is the better word, where they really want to sink their teeth into it and commit to it, what typical changes do you see that they have to make? A startup with five people that is built around a purpose, it’s baked into everything they do, right? They figure out how to do it, every new process they create, they’re able to boil it right in, but how does it impact a mature company, the ones that you’ve seen successfully do it, what are some of the changes they’ve made to their organization and to their processes that help it become part of the fabric of the company?

Brittany: Sure. Well, I think it all starts with C-level leadership [unintelligible 00:11:05]. We talked to a lot of social-impact professionals that are fighting the good fight at more mature companies, and they tell us that they feel like they have to go to the mat for social impact, that they have to prove its value, that they have to prove its worth. And so, a lot of times, that can be proven with research, with pilot programs. We talked to brands like Tyson Foods who have said, “We had to prove that we should change our supply chain, we should change the way that we’re producing products. Let’s invest a little bit in a pilot, prove our worth, prove that this is working and matters, and then leadership will buy in and take it to the next level.”

We hear that a lot, especially in mature companies, of, “I need to assign value to the fact that this should be an investment, just like we invest in PR campaigns, just like we invest in R&D, just like we invest and involve our marketing strategies, purpose or social impact should be no different because it can have implications across so much and so many facets within the company.” We’ve seen it twofold. First, prove the value to internal stakeholders, C-suite preferably, the value that social impact or purpose can actually have on the bottom line. Because numbers make people stand up and listen like nothing else, right?

Adam: Yes. [laughs]

Brittany: Yes, and so doing that, first and foremost. I think piloting and social proofing of giving other examples, internally, in terms of buy-in, of “Here’s how our competitors have done it,” or, “here’s how brands like Patagonia and CVS and Adidas–” or Adidas, however you prefer to say it, “have actually either started from a place of purpose, like Patagonia, or have evolved into that, like CVS and Adidas.” They’ve done it because all of those departments were aligned, they understood the value that purpose could have, from a numbers and tangible perspective, and, internally, they had buy-in.

I will also say one more thing that we found interesting. We also host a lot of interviews with CSR executives to keep our finger on the pulse of things, and we were talking with Seventh Generation and their CEO and they actually– again, one of those companies that somewhat was built around purpose-

Adam: Right, yes, it’s part of who they are.

Brittany: Part of who they are. But even more so, which I didn’t know from the outside, looking [unintelligible 00:13:48] clued us in on the fact that, from an accountability standpoint, whether you are in sales or marketing or HR or whatever department you’re in within Seventh Generation, you have an accountability goal to hit a purpose, a sustainability goal, for the overall company. Even if you’re an HR, if you are not contributing and the company is not hitting the sustainability goal, then you’re not meeting your personal goals.

And so, we thought that was a really interesting dynamic that potentially other brands could adopt to make sure that everybody understands how important it is, how it includes collaboration across [unintelligible 00:14:32] to make it truly successful, but it’s drilling down to that deep of a level, to personal accountability, professional accountability so that the entire company thrives.

Adam: Are the companies, that you interface with, are they typically they call you because they already are bought into this or there’s a stakeholder there who is? Or are you sometimes brought in before a firing squad who has no idea why they would invest in us?

Brittany: [laughs] It’s a little of both. I will say we get the more sophisticated brands that are looking to revitalize, evolve, have a rebirth of purpose or of social impact or of philanthropy because they know they have to. Then, we have smaller companies who say, “You know what? We want to do something and we know that this is good for our business. We just have no idea where to start, this is so overwhelming that we have no idea where to start.”

Adam: Yes, I would imagine that the– you mentioned the investment, the companies that are shrewd understand they have to make an investment in marketing, in PR, in campaigns, and R&D, and maybe technology. I wonder if it’s not a company that gets that, that they would just never understand that they have to invest in purpose and not just slap a logo on something?

Brittany: I would absolutely agree with you. I would say 90% of the companies we meet do not come into conversations with us, or most other technology companies, or even consultancies, from a place of, “We want to invest in this to reap the benefits.” It’s usually, “We know we need to do something, so can you help us?” It’s oftentimes in education. I often say, “Over the past 5 or 10 years, has your company changed its recipes? Has your company changed its product and packaging? Has your company changed its marketing and PR strategies?” and the answer across the board is, “of course.” Well, then why wouldn’t you do the same in terms of evolution and investment in purpose that can have an exponential impact on your bottom line than any of those other actual components.

When we position it that way, it oftentimes clicks and there’s that light bulb of, “Oh yes.” It’s then taking up the next step of proving the value with a lot of examples out there and studies out there that it can tangibly make an ROI because they do have to– it’s a for-profit company to an extent, and so, you have to justify investment somehow.

Adam: Yes, especially if you’re dealing with some of the public companies that have to rationalize every dollar they invest against share price. Let’s get into how you help them align their– I think visually, so I’m imagining a triangle and at one side is the customer, one side is the brand, and then the third side will be the purpose, the cause, the organization that they will support or the foundation they will start. Take me through how you measure up and identify what that third vertex is there?

Brittany: Yes. We believe everything starts from the stakeholder. Really having a deep understanding– and those stakeholders are threefold for us. One it’s the customer, two– and that could be b2c or b2b, right? But who are your customers and what is important to them. Second are your employees. Sometimes those are first, depending on the type of company, and this is not by rank but all in the same playing field. Right? Second are your employees because they are the lifeline of your company. We think that a lot of brands are really cluing into that fact more and more. Then third are your investors.

But first and foremost, looking at what causes do your customers and your employees care most about. As Americans, overall, we just actually issued an issue revolution study that measured issue relevance and revelant over the last, and the changes that that has had over the last three to four years, but understanding your own customers, your own employees of the causes that matter the organizations that they already are supporting or engaging with so that you know as a brand you can empower them and meet them where they are to really support the stakeholders that will make your company successful. Starting from that place and and we do that through technology, through psychosocial analysis, through mapping, email addresses and social handles and information against activities and social listening and purchasing decisions and volunteer decisions-

Adam: All the same things we would do to build a customer avatar, you’re doing the same things to figure out what causes the– instead of brands, you’re– instead of creating an index of brands, you’re creating an index of causes and interests.

Brittany: That’s correct. We start from that place, but your customers or your employees as a brand may be interested in the moment in gender equality or maybe talking about gun control or really interested in education, but does that fit with your core values as a company?

Then we do look at that triangle or that Venn diagram of assigning value to resonance and relevance and risk proclivity, and audience affinity toward causes and the core values of the company. Then we’ll triangulate those two things, what’s important to your stakeholders and what’s important to the company, into literally an algorithm that heavily weights one over the other, and analyzes that against [unintelligible 00:20:40] against trends in the marketplace, against benchmarks, against your competitors, because purpose oftentimes in today’s climate is about differentiation as much as it is about acquisition or about brand reputation.

That’s literally how we do it. I love that you painted that triangle as sort of the visual, but all of that comes into you kind of a supercomputer in our system and outputs for you. Here are the causes and the issues that makes the most sense for your brand based of all of those inputs, and here’s even more importantly, which we hear a lot of times from brands now in particular, is how much of a voice should I have in this one issue?

Adam: Wait, wait. Stop. This is great. Now you identified the directionally these are the areas that you can talk about that your customers and your brand and your employees align with, and then you measure out how much voice they should give it or how much they should– Tell me more.

Brittany: Exactly. Yes they share a voice. Something like, I don’t know, education, should we be an industry leader in this issue? Should we support it behind the scenes because there’s a little proclivity for risk or LGBTQ rights? We work with brands like Harry’s who had a huge pride campaign, changed their packaging, supported a variety of different causes and organizations within the LGBTQ community this past summer.

They came out as an industry leader, as a voice in that community. Some brands that might not have been the right thing for them, given a variety of different scenarios. Maybe they still want to support it and they know it’s important, but the share of voice is so important in today’s marketplace where if you make the wrong decision, it could jeopardize a significant amount of a customer and employee affinity.

Adam: Yes, I’m sure. Have you ever had anybody fight you and just say, no, I want to support this cause, and I want to do a whole campaign about it that doesn’t show up in your data or that won’t help them achieve the goals that they set out at the beginning?

Brittany: There are outliers where sometimes an executive has a personal connection to a particular cause or a particular organization where they just go full force without really proving that that makes a lot of business sense, and there are going to be those personal instances. You’re never going to be able to discount the human connection. That comes into play with continuing to support your employees and executives, but for the most part, again, going back to numbers, which is why I’m such a data geek, if we prove it with numbers, if we prove that there an affinity, if we proved that there’s a 90% sentiment around this, again, the same way you would for any branding campaign or any marketing or PR campaign, why wouldn’t you then invest in the direction that the data is proving you go. So most of the brands we work with, they don’t do necessarily exactly what the data says, but it certainly is pushing them in the right direction to go right or left or center or gray or whatever that prescriptive analytic might tell them.

Adam: Well, if I may, the word authenticity is become a little bit of– It’s a buzzword, and it’s kind of a cliche, but I know it’s an important word. How does, if, again, if it’s a purpose built brand, it’s something that started with this idea and woven into everything they do. I get how that brand says we’re authentic to it, but when it’s pulled out of data, do you have trouble? Is there ever a risk that it won’t come off as an authentic interests that it was lab generated as like, well, we wanted to do something with purpose and this was our match and so here we are doing this, or how do you stitch the two together so that it becomes authentic, and that it becomes a true purpose and not just a purpose campaign?

Brittany: That is a great question. The data, if you recall, is generated by an analysis from people, first and foremost, and by an analysis of what is truly core to the company. It’s not necessarily just picking something out of thin air. It is driven by those authentic connections that stakeholders have with causes. It comes from a place of authenticity, first and foremost. Is it delivered in data? Sure. Do you have to build stories around it? Absolutely. Do you have to, most importantly, back it up and put your walk the walk, and not just talk the talk? Absolutely.

You cannot put out an ad campaign, and I’m not going to pick on any brand because we love them, but you can’t necessarily just put out anymore a lovely Superbowl ad or an ad campaign or a purpose campaign without actually demonstrating to customers what you are doing to support that issue on the back end. It’s great to talk about something, and it’s great that you’ve chosen an issue to stand for, and that you’ve chosen something to stand up for, but you actually know customers and employees are demanding that they understand.

We’ve seen the stats. We’ve created some of them and generated these studies on our own, but general American no longer just wants to hear about the impact that you’re making, they want to understand it. They want to understand on a tangible level, what are you doing to support this issue, and so certainly the data will help pave that way of decision making, but we work with agencies all the time when it comes to fueling their data. Oftentimes, we are the data behind the branding campaign that creates the story, that creates that authenticity, that creates that personal connection with the cause.

Adam: Is there any signal to you when you’re in the process of helping a company identify a purpose or a cause or an organization to support where is there ever a signal that you say, oh, no, you should not move forward, you’re not ready to do this?

Brittany: I would say infrastructure is the first thing. Infrastructure and cross departmental buy-in. If marketing and purpose are not aligned, probably not ready to move forward. That’s probably the first largest issue that we see.

Adam: Totally get it. I had another question, but that in bell just totally threw me out. Did you hear that?

Brittany: Yes.

Adam: Sorry about that. I don’t know what that was. How involved are you guys post? How involved does Catalist stay involved in the process once the match’s made?

Brittany: We certainly focus on issue mapping, as we call it, matchmaking. We dive down into the granular level of once you’ve identified the issue that you stand for, should stand for which nonprofit organizations make the most sense for you in terms of what types of a commitment to community are you looking for, what type of mission serve to impact or mission serve the audience rather are you looking to connect with?

We really help them do due diligence and finding the right nonprofit partners to get out in the community and do good work. We typically partner with other vendors, with other agencies, we’re very collaborative in the execution phase, and then we come back in, we’re kind of the book ends. We help you identify what you’re going to do, and who you’re going to do that with.

We partner with other folks to help you put the story out there, to help you execute what you’re doing, and then we come back in at the end and help you measure, and then value those partnerships or those commitments. If we’ve donated or spent a million dollars or two million dollars or $20 million on the environment, the Sierra through a variety of different partnerships. As a brand and as a social impact professional, I would want to know what type of return did that give me, not only what type of volume of people or lands or reduction of admissions or all of those great measurements. Yes, we need that, but I want to know what was the value of this investment and back to make money, so that’s where we come back in into the fold.

Adam: That’s awesome. Pre-campaign and then post campaign to make sure– I’m saying campaign, but post investment period so you can make sure that somebody’s correctly mapping the return or the progress that was made.

Brittany: That’s correct.

Adam: That’s awesome. The research that you mentioned earlier, the study that you did, is that something that you could link to?

Brittany: Absolutely, yes. We can send you the link that you can go to the GoCatalist,, and the study is there for free download.

Adam: That’s perfect. I will link to it in the show notes as well. Where else– what else do you have to speaking engagements or any other stuff that you want to promote?

Brittany: Oh, gosh, we’re speaking all the time. It just came back from a few things. On that same page on our website, there are also a list of our speaking engagements coming up. We’re always at engage for good and we’ve been at sustainable brands. We have some coverage coming up in Forbes and Ad Age in the coming months on some other work that we’ve been doing, so yes, always out there.

Adam: All right, awesome, very good. Brittany, thank you so much. I know you’re almost always on an airplane, so I appreciate you being on the ground and talking to us for a little bit.

Brittany: Thank you. Thanks for having me. This is fun.

Adam: Yes, this is awesome. I’m glad we were able to connect.

Brittany: Likewise. Have a great one.

Adam: You too, thanks.

Brittany: Bye bye.