A global study by Zeno Group asked 8,000 consumers across eight global markets to rate more than 75 brands on their perceived strength of purpose. The findings revealed that consumers are four to six times more likely to purchase, protect and champion purpose-driven companies.
Despite research that suggests integrating a social purpose into a business model pays off, many brands are reluctant to take action. Taking a stance, especially amid a global pandemic and push for racial justice, however, isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.
We spoke with Dr. Myriam Sidibe, former social mission director at Unilever and the author of “Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose” about how brands can drive impact through purpose and the kind of leadership necessary to produce transformational change within a company.
What are some actionable steps brands can take to build purpose into their growth strategy?
The way brands can drive purpose and shatter stereotypes is through their marketing and advertising, making sure that they’re showcasing minorities and people with disabilities, in different kinds of positions, respectfully. This involves choosing words and images that reflect the reality of all of the different communities portrayed, whether it’s gender, race, LGBTQ+ or differently-abled bodies. Showing images of people from racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power and leadership is also very good for role modeling.
In my book, I call the brands that stand up “brands on a mission” because they will go far. Whereas the ones that don’t have a mission will actually fall behind.
Between Ben and Jerry’s launching a new Justice Remix’d flavor with the Advancement Project National Office and Walmart committing $100 million over five years for the creation of a center devoted to racial equity, many brands have taken great action to promote social change.
How can brands drive social change responsibly without exploiting or inflaming situations?
Brands need to uphold values mindfully. You don’t want to cause unintended harm, but you do want to be very truthful in what you stand for. Be really intentional about choosing your messages. You may choose to be controversial, like Nike with its 2018 Colin Kaepernick ad. But if you’re going to express your stance, you need to do it with integrity and good intentions. You need to follow up with what I’m calling the distinction between “brand say” and “brand do.” Where “brand say” is the advertising talk, “brand do” is what you do in terms of partnerships, what you put in your advertising to drive positive behavior change and what you do in terms of driving systemic change that’s bigger than just your brand advocacy.
You can do quite a lot with measurement to track whether you’re making a real dent in terms of changing attitudes, educating people the right way and getting the right engagement you’re looking for.
If you’re going to stand for anything, that cause must manifest across the board—from the advertising to the product and the supply chain, to the hiring of talent and retaining of black people, including at the senior and C-Suite levels. Those actions set apart the brands that are just jumping on the bandwagon versus ones who want to make a real difference.
What advice would you give to brands who have typically shied away from social issues?
Start by educating yourself and looking internally. If you’re going to stand for racial equality, you’re going to have to make sure your house is in order and that indeed you’re putting policies in place, you’re calling out micro-aggressions and you’re being very honest about your ability to create safe spaces and to grow and retain in-house black talent. That doesn’t mean taking a big public stance.
For brands that have never voiced a purpose, they need to understand that right now is more about listening than actually saying, unless they’ve previously consistently stood for a cause. For example, a brand like Ben and Jerry’s has stood for equality for the last 20 years. They have stellar brand ethics, their board is really diverse and they’ve worked with black and LGBTQ+ communities to effect change, so you know when they come out with a public statement or a plan of action that it’s really genuine.
For a brand that’s new to backing a social cause, I’d say follow the Black Lives Matter movement, but don’t be the first one to launch the next advertising around how much you care for black people if you haven’t done anything by first demonstrating at least a medium-term commitment and working on a coalition with partners.
At the leadership level, what type of talent is required to drive these transformational changes?
Everybody in a company should be responsible for driving change. At every level, an inclusive culture that doesn’t tolerate micro-aggressions should be implemented. A lot of brand mishaps you see are a result of excluding some diversity members in the team who would have been able to see things differently and who would’ve expressed their point of view—to say, ‘I feel rather offended by this,’ or ‘I’m not sure this would make my community feel comfortable.’
This diversity requires richness at all points in time. The more you take a chance on someone who doesn’t look and doesn’t sound like you at all levels of the corporate ladder, the better chances you’ll have to get better input.
Getting on a social mission is a business imperative because brands that do not adopt moral values are going to find it really hard to survive in the future. Before quality was just the right differentiator between brands. Today, having morals that you stick to will enable brands to set themselves apart.
At the heart of this kind of leadership is passion. You need to find somebody who feels extremely passionate about the issue to drive that social mission across because she will call out when things are wrong in the organization. She or he won’t be scared. They need to know that leadership is going to back them up and that there won’t be consequences for speaking their truth. If you really want to see whether diversity has been embraced and embedded throughout, ask a company how many black people have been in their company for 20 or 25 years, and at which level?
What are the benefits of integrating a social purpose?
Purpose is not only a differentiator, but in many cases, it drives retention and creativity. If what you’re looking for is employees that are energized, imagine how much retention you’re going to get by infusing purpose at the heart of what you do.
If your purpose is very well aligned with the business end goal, it will also bring about innovation and creativity within the brand itself. For example, let’s say you’re a soap company like Lifebuoy and your purpose is to reduce child mortality by getting 1 billion people to wash their hands then you’re also driving volume, you’re driving penetration and you enter into new markets with a differentiation right upfront. Those are all reasons to put a purpose at the core of your business strategy.
In my experience, some brands are reluctant to act on social issues because they’re scared or they lack the confidence. They may not have a portfolio within their company that aligns with that purpose so they’re worried some part of the business is so wrong that it will taint anything they try to do. So they just choose inaction.
Can you name a few brands that you think are doing a great job at this?
The Lifebuoy soap brand and its handwashing programs are trying to get 1 billion people to wash their hands. Durex has done a great job in terms of safe sex promotions, HIV prevention and breaking the taboos around it.
Another great brand that’s putting healthy behaviors at the core of what they do is Vitality insurance, which encourages consumers to adopt healthy behaviors. For example: If you use your seat belt, eat healthy foods and exercise more, they reduce your premium.
There’s also Lixil, which is a Japanese brand that’s doing some great stuff with improving sanitation around the world.