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Brands and Activism

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    Adam Stones FRSA
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Adam Stones FRSA explores how businesses can create meaningful 'Purpose' that leads to action.

We have entered the era of Purpose. It is the idea that the very ​essence of a business must be that of effecting positive change in some way. Purpose is a concept cropping up - reassuringly - with increasing energy around the world.

Those organizations that are identifying and activating Purpose well are seeing huge growth, whilst those that are going a little further - turning their good ​intentions into high-profile, meaningful ​actions - are securing even bigger returns. They are not only creating lasting connections with their audiences, but are also making them feel powerful, which just makes them want even more.

This Purpose revolution comes at a time of mounting desperation as to just how the hell we are going to address the mounting systemic challenges we see around us. Climate breakdown, 'insectageddon', plastic in the oceans, air pollution, social rifts… well, you know the list from reading the RSA's newsletters...

The scale of it all is leading to increasing anxiety that we are, well, screwed and many of us are turning to businesses to step in and step up.

There are three main audience drivers leading this demand:

  • Consumers: ​Meaningful Brands found that three quarters of worldwide consumers now expect brands to contribute to their wellbeing and quality of life.
  • Employees: ​ Research published by Danone UK found that a quarter of British managers would take a pay cut for a purpose-led job, and half would leave if their company’s values and Purpose did not align with their own.
  • Investors:​ Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, the world's largest investment company (overseeing nearly $6 trillion) said, “Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”

Meet this demand well and the rewards are immense. Purpose can increase sales figures, and decrease operational costs and risks (in everything from staffing to supply chains). In this way, in-built Purpose is very connected to sustainability. Unilever is the oft-cited evidence here - its purpose-led brands are growing at twice the rate of its other brands, and its vocal commitment to Purpose has helped it to become the number one employer of choice in its sector in 44 markets.

To find your organization's Purpose you have to go on an archaeological dig, looking back over the history of the business to find its original motivations or across the depth of its modern operations, to find its strengths and opportunities. You might consider surveying the whole company to get their buy-in early on. It can also be helpful to consider a Venn diagram where Purpose is at the intersection of three elements:

  1. What the world needs
  2. What you do well
  3. What you and your audience passionate about

Doing so gives you something relatable and genuine; and being genuine is essential here. You can not communicate Purpose externally until it exists everywhere internally. It must live through the culture and operations - with strong internal communications - then find its way into products, services and experiences, and only then can you consider external communications.

This Purpose can range from the ​epic - such as helping to progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - to the ​everyday, such as​ giving your stakeholders opportunities to find happiness, human connections, or empowerment or just having a strong commitment to improving employee health or skills. For any smaller brand concerned that Purpose must always be massive, be assured - you can start with the small stuff as long as it creates a connection.

Once you have started, it is easy to imagine how the small seeds could grow - take a reusable water bottle, for example, marketed initially as simply a solution to plastic waste, and later - when confidence grows - taking action as a brand with beach clean-ups where its audience joins in, open-call design challenges around using recycled ocean plastic in its products and forming partnerships with other international sustainability change agents. Suddenly the engagement, support and reach of your message ​is massive.

Another scale on which to consider Purpose is that it is likely to either be ​founding - where the brand was established to create a positive impact - or ​found - where a positive connection has been established later.

Dove is an example of the latter, where Unilever has used the concept of female empowerment through ‘real beauty’ to create the connection. Now, some argue that is little more than a marketing tactic to shift body wash, and yet the result of ‘empowerment’ ​is gained. It will be interesting to see how Dove’s messaging evolves as consumers play closer scrutiny to Purpose.

Once the Purpose​ has been established, then taking action becomes a natural next step. As I said, you can start small here, but let’s look at some of the big ones… The US outdoor retail cooperative REI famously closes its 143 stores every Black Friday and encourages its customers and employees to spend time outdoors with friends and family. REI’s actions give authenticity to the brand’s Purpose of connecting people to nature. In the process though it creates massive marketing success - last year, the campaign’s hashtag #OptOutside appeared in over 10 million Instagram posts.

Successful actions must be rooted in what your audience cares about. Nike would not have provided such high profile marketing support to the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick if it was not confident the majority of its customers also stood behind his take-a-knee, er, stance. And the message they delivered perfectly connected with their Purpose of bringing out the dreams in all of us. In one advert, it reads ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’

Of course, in the ‘purpose-rush’ from organizations wanting a piece of of the prize there are plenty of brands making a mess of all this. Jeff Macdonald FRSA has raised the example of Gillette's recent approach to tackling the ‘small’ issue of toxic masculinity in his ​recent blog​. The most common mistake made by brands trying to take action is to build it around a Purpose that was dreamed up by the marketing team, and is not embedded across the organization.

One way to avoid being accused of ‘purpose-washing’ is to team-up. For any organization that wants to take action but knows it can not authentically do it themselves, collaborations can be essential. Working with expert bodies on specific issues can give them your reach, influence and operations whilst you get plugged into the front line of meaningful action and, frequently, new audiences.

Wherever your organization starts, it is important to just start now. Purpose-led brands will be the only survivors in this new era of consciousness. And those that use this to create meaningful action will be the ones that not only establish themselves as ready for the future but will help make that future better too.

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  • All consumers will  love companies whose Purpose extends Earth-wide.  The vision: 1st World corporations set up CSR-focused, 'clean and green' joint ventures with 3rd world mega co-ops, State and climate funds aiding. Employee-owned co-ops address wealth and power imbalances ('scandalous' in the 3rd World).  Joint ventures spreading out 3rd World-wide will convert billions of poor into employees, which means massive markets for all involved companies, and rising salaries for their employees.  Doubtless, such social 'intrapreneurship' will create loyal and eager employees, world-scale captive customers, and a 'messianic' corporate culture for the good of humanity and Mother Earth.

  • It is interesting that these myths persist.  In the Myth of the Ethical Consumer (Cambridge 2010), Giana Eckhardt, Pat Auger and I presented dozens of experiments and other pieces of work (all funded by the Australian Research Council) that showed how surveys and opinion based preferences of social activism are meaningless and that rarely does consumer action matter (if indeed it exists beyond small niches).  Pat and I, along with other co-authors, showed also that employee surveys (like the Danone one) are also fairly meaningless.  In a massive study of thousands of workers we showed that basically no one will take a pay cut or anything similar to work for 'better' companies.  As long as a company is 'good enough' there is no extra value.  In another study done on pension investment in the US and Australia, Pat and I showed that individuals underinvest in social investment funds (and that these funds are actually financially misaligned w/r to individual preferences (this paper in Annals in Social Responsibility).  Additionally, Giana Eckhardt along with several colleagues have papers in Harvard Business Review and J. Consumer Behavior that show how initiatives like "Panera Cares" failed miserably in the face of consumer unwillingness to support the initiative.  While things like "purpose" seem to make sense, the reality is they conflict with daily life in ways that make it easy for individuals to keep making ordinary decisions in ordinary ways.  

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