Giles Thomas, Global Commercial Director at MIMO Brands

 

 

This is a summary of a podcast I was invited to record with Andy Goram of BizJuicer on his employee engagement podcast “Sticky From The Inside” to discuss the topic – you can listen to it here.

 

Does Brand Purpose Really Matter?

We’re used to hearing about how consumers have changed to become more ecologically-conscious, more socially-conscious and more concerned about the impact of their consumption.

 

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Some people, companies and commentators draw one of two extreme conclusions from this:

  • The only way to save capitalism, society and the planet is for every business to proclaim its lofty intentions to save the world by selling more eco/society-friendly stuff

  • Or, it’s all nonsense: businesses’ only responsibility is to maximise profits, and consumers don’t really care about pollution, labour standards, social damage, rampant consumerism etc – even though they say they do when asked

Of course, the truth lies somewhere between these two positions.

 

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One key fact is very hard to dispute. The prevailing social and economic trends are not sustainable:

  • According to Oxfam, the assets of the world’s richest 1% are worth more than double those of the poorest 6.9 BILLION people

  • One third of all food produced goes to waste – yet one in nine people worldwide go hungry. Even in the wealthy UK, 8 million people struggle to feed themselves on a weekly basis

  • Global temperatures have increased by an average 1 degree Celsius in the last century, and the last few years’ average temperatures have been amongst the hottest on record

No reasonable person or organisation wants any of these things to happen, but many behave as if their actions don’t contribute towards these trends.

Some organisations embody social or environmental values in their activities, and they are not just reaping “feel good points”. They’re seeing tangible business benefits.

 

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Take The Co-Operative Society: a standing rebuke to anyone who thinks that “brand purpose” is something dreamed up in the last few years. The Co-Op has had a social purpose at the heart of its business for over 150 years. At Mimo Brands, we were fortunate enough to work with The East of England Co-Operative Society over the last couple of years. Their goal is to make profits that can be invested in their communities, particularly to help disadvantaged people. The society is owned by members and is held accountable by a lay board. It’s no coincidence that they’re also one of the most popular employers in the region. They see greater staff satisfaction and productivity than competitors, and they have an advantage in attracting talent.

Brand purpose creates a virtuous circle for The East of England Co-Op. Perhaps you think I’m not playing fair with this example. So let’s try another one…

 

Unilever plc.

Listed on the London Stock Exchange and a member of the FTSE100 index (LON:ULVR). In 2010, Unilever launched a radical Sustainable Living Plan, proclaiming:

 

“Our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace.”

 

And since then they’ve been doing it, in public, while being traded on a major international exchange.

Their commitments include:

  • Improving health and wellbeing for more than one billion people

  • Reducing the company’s environmental impact by half

  • Adhering to clear policies on animal testing, biofuels, conflict minerals and human rights

Their share price has more than doubled since the start of 2011. In July 2020, it was the single most valuable company on the LSE. But for every example I’ve cited above, it’s easy to find a counter.

 

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Consider BooHoo.

Just a few months ago, many experts thought that the writing was on the wall for the fashion brand, after their inhuman treatment of sweatshop workers was brought to light. Their share price tumbled, dropping by one third in a single day. But the purpose-conscious young consumers about whom we hear so much didn’t turn away from BooHoo. The next six months saw their sales expand by 45%. Cases like this reinforce the cynical notion that – when it comes down to it – these consumers prefer a cheap top to decent living standards for the people who produce them.

 

Why Does Brand Purpose Get A Bad Rap?

Of course, there are some companies that just want to look good while doing bad. There always have been and always will be. But I’m afraid a lot of the cynicism around brand purpose is on us in the branding and marketing world.

  • There has been a stampede of inexperienced but well-intentioned brand and marketing people into the space ever since Simon Sinek’s famous “Start with Why” TED Talk put the concept firmly onto many companies’ agendas

  • Their undirected or superficial efforts routinely failed to move the needle for the businesses

  • The consequence has been the reinforcement of our sector’s already unenviable reputation for dispensing impenetrable waffle to draw a smokescreen around a lack of rigour, thinking and discipline

 

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Here’s the problem. Meaningful brand purpose is not an easy thing to develop, execute and maintain. Unilever and The Co-Op both illustrate the importance of continuity and consistency.

 

How To Develop Meaningful Brand Purpose

It demands asking, exploring and answering some big, often uncomfortable questions. If you hope to create an emotional connection with customers, you’ll need to involve them so as to find your common ground and understanding. You’ll need to involve your colleagues too, because living your values entails taking everybody with you on the journey. Building an effective brand purpose involves the Head of HR as much as the Head of Brand. Aligning external and internal perceptions and behaviours is a big challenge, one that many “experts” in this space are poorly equipped to address. Ultimately, you’ll come across the crunch question: are you prepared to lose short-term profits for the sake of long-term benefits? As the great Bill Bernbach said:

 

“A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.”

 

And this is not just a B2C issue. B2B companies are increasingly having to prove their ethical behaviours in order to secure a place on partnership shortlists. As customer behaviours change, having an acceptable purpose is becoming a hygiene factor rather than a marketing tool for differentiation. Like I said, it’s not easy. It’s particularly difficult to install a brand purpose on an organisation that didn’t launch with one. People are rightly suspicious of “greenwashing” and other cosmetic exercises. But it’s not impossible. Developing brand purpose is something we care about and specialise in at Mimo Brands.

 

So I’ll leave you with three key points to consider before you embrace brand purpose, or dismiss it:

  1. Be honest about what you do, how and why

  2. Open your eyes to the consequences of your actions and decisions

  3. Step up and take responsibility

 

Giles Thomas is Founder of MIMO Brands. As GO! Network members they help brands generate business value through smarter branding. If you’d like to learn more about our agency network or get advice on specific challenges, get in touch here