You can’t go a single day without hearing the phrase “brand purpose,” but what does it actually mean? In short, it’s a brand’s reason for existence beyond making money. Today, a growing number of companies are jumping at the chance to signal their social and environmental credentials. For good reason too — it’s what people want. Consumers are determining the fate of brands with their purchases. And when all things are equal, they will choose to buy from a brand that has a positive impact.
Doing good has become the ultimate competitive advantage — a golden ticket to future-proofing your business. Getting it right will earn you a place in popular culture, improve your reputation and increase your market share. Getting it wrong could spark public outrage, claims of insincerity and the possibility of a boycott. The stakes have never been higher, and success depends on converting brand purpose into action. After all, purpose without action is pointless. It’s like buying a book and never reading it.
Get the basics right.
The journey towards social impact starts with making sure that your brand is doing no harm. It can be easy to forget that business is a part of society. Thus, companies have a duty to make a positive contribution to people’s lives. For brands, this begins with paying tax: an agreed fee for doing business and making a profit. Yet, most brands view tax as a cost to be minimized, rather than an investment back into society. Corporation tax helps to fund essential healthcare, education and social services for the very customers and employees who buy and work for a business. In truth, there’s not much point in having a lofty brand mission if you’re not even holding up your end of the bargain.
Sadly, some of the world’s biggest brands are using tax loopholes to legally avoid paying its debt to society. In the U.K., Facebook only paid £15.8m in tax last year despite collecting a record £1.3bn in sales. Avoiding tax can cause long-term reputational damage, as seen in the past with Starbucks, Amazon, Google and others. In contrast, brands that pay their fair share will no doubt win public approval. A great example is Patagonia, who used $10 million in U.S. tax savings to combat climate change. So, when Patagonia says, “we’re in business to save our home planet,” people believe them. Fulfilling your responsibility as a business provides a foundation for brand activism. It begins with paying your taxes, looking after your employees and not destroying the environment.
Building a meaningful brand is hard work. It requires changing the way things have always been done. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But it’s not. You need courage, conviction, vision and a champion at the very top. The scale and depth of transformation demand a long-term approach. A rare commodity, considering that the average CEO spends less than five years in the job. To make matters worse, most companies are under constant pressure to deliver short-term results for shareholders; often at the expense of building long-term value. This is despite overwhelming evidence indicating that long-term companies deliver superior financial performance.
The good news is that we’re reaching a tipping point, characterized by mass adoption of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable business practices. For example, renewable energy is set to become cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. To quote Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Sørensen, “In the long term, social and environmental issues become financial issues.” In 2010, Unilever launched an ambitious plan to decouple business growth from environmental impact. Nine years later, Unilever’s sustainable brands are now delivering 70 percent of its growth. Such success is predicated on making society a stakeholder in your business. This can be achieved by aligning your business objectives with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: a set of 17 goals, agreed by 193 nations of the UN to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change.
The complexity of global issues is far too great for anyone to tackle alone. Such problems require new thinking, innovative approaches and an unprecedented level of collaboration. To use a famous African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We can’t save the world in silos; doing so requires collective, collaborative action. To change things for the better, brands need to look beyond their own boundaries. This means collaborating with start-ups, individuals, civil society and so-called competitors to co-create a more equitable and sustainable future for all.
Co-creation represents a substantial growth opportunity for brands. It’s a chance to embed new thinking, practices and doing good into the core of their business. One of the best examples of co-creation is Lego which has teamed up with Sesame Workshop to help Rohingya and Syrian refugee children to learn and heal through play. Lego is realizing its brand purpose by investing $100 million into the program. This move will help Lego win the hearts and minds of a new generation of fans — 87 years on from the company’s inception. To reap the full benefits of co-creation, brands need to make sure their new project or partnership reflects their own offering as a business. Finding the right strategic partner will help turn a global mission into local, grassroots social and environmental activation.
What it all means.
Doing good has become the ultimate competitive advantage for brands in the 21st century. In an increasingly overcrowded market, your brand’s contribution to society becomes the decisive point of difference for consumers. The first step in the process is making sure that you’re not doing any harm. Once that’s established, brands can then begin to do good by adopting a collaborative mindset and a long-term approach to problem-solving.
By in large, brand activism fueled by conscious consumerism is going to fundamentally change the nature of business. The scale and depth of change are comparable to the rise of digital technology in the 1990s and early 2000s. In a similar way, those who embrace this new reality will win the hearts and minds of a new generation of consumers. On the flipside, those who fail to adapt risk entering the annals of irrelevancy, which already includes a long list of extinct brands. In the end, like most things, the difference between the two scenarios will boil down to the level of talk versus action.