15 August 2019
Until about 10 years ago only a handful of global brands talked about purpose. Even fewer actually delivered on it.
Of course there were some notable exceptions like The Body Shop that started life in 1976 as an ethical ‘force for good’ by banning animal-testing, pioneering the fair trade movement and fuelling community empowerment. Today, while many businesses strive to do more than just the right thing, we see many global brands knowingly exploiting the selling power of purpose.
Some brand owners and marketers are irresponsibly and liberally applying purpose claims like cheap suntan lotion to protect their growing profits and hypocrisy from the UV glare of savvy consumers, government departments and investigative journalists trying to hold them to account.
Starbucks, whose purpose is apparently to ‘inspire and nurture the human spirit one cup at a time’ to build community – while doing everything it can to minimise its tax payments (which is what WILL help the community); Volkswagen whose goal is to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles – while intentionally programming TDI diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during lab testing in over a million cars worldwide and; State Street the authors of ‘Fearless Girl’ campaign whose mission is to get more diversity into executive teams – while actually paying women and people of colour less than their white male colleagues…And these are just a few of a longer list that are currently being called out or in some cases, taken to Court.
On the upside there are also a growing number of businesses (such as Unilever and Natura) whose forward-thinking philosophy and organisational behaviour are driven from a strongly embedded purpose built into the fabric of their business. Here, it is not only the driver for the good of the communities they serve but is the key strategic guide for the business, informing cultural alignment with employees and partners and providing the springboard for innovation of products and services.
As Hanneke Faber CEO of Unilever Europe recently said, the label ‘brand management’ is being replaced with something more like ‘brand activism’. Brands like Ben and Jerry’s are making an impact on cultural inequality and human rights and Dove are championing the authentic representation of women and agenda-changing initiatives. Recently Unilever’s new CEO Alan Jope has announced that unless their brands lead with purpose, they have no place in their portfolio.
It’s probably no surprise then that Unilever’s fastest growing brands are those with a clear purpose. In fact, Unilever’s purpose-led brands grew 47% faster than the rest of the portfolio and delivered 70% of company growth in 2017. But because the consumer giant had already rebuilt its organisational structure and business philosophy by creating its decade-long Sustainable Living Plan, these product brand claims are a lot more credible.
Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is famous for being founded on its purpose ‘to save our home planet’. It’s part of 1% Planet Initiative (giving back 1% sales revenue to grassroots environmental groups every year) and has been using 100% organic cotton in all clothing since 1996. And as well as having a mobile mending service in the US, is also funding large scale environmental protection programmes, like the creation and preservation of National Park, Estancia Valle Chacabuco in Chilean Patagonia.
In November 2018 Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario remarkably announced that they would be putting the $10m tax saving created by Trump’s tax cuts back into the planet ‘because our home needs it more than we do’. She said any corporate gain from the latest corporate tax cut is dirty money. “Taxes protect the most vulnerable in our society, our public lands and other life-giving resources,” she wrote. “In spite of this, the Trump administration initiated a corporate tax cut, threatening these services at the expense of our planet.”
Over the years we have worked with many global brands helping them to define and articulate their unique PVV (Purpose, Vision, Values). We know how fundamental it is that purpose must not only be inspirational but critically that it be made real and systemically activated throughout the business with leaders as champions. This process can takes years of endeavour, significant change and sacrifice, as amply demonstrated by Unilever.
It goes without saying therefore, that there is an inextricable link between corporate brand and employer brand. When a business lives by its principles we experience it through our interactions with its people and how they think and behave.
And so it was a pleasure to discover during our research and immersion for leading Japanese consumer goods business Kao (Molton Brown, Bioré, KMS, John Frieda) that the company was not just talking the talk.
As we interviewed and filmed over 60 employees in 3 countries during the development of Kao EMEA’s employer brand we found real truth behind the company’s philosophical pillars: sustainability Kirei, constant innovation Yoki-Monosukuri and intense consumer focus Genba.
There was a subtle but powerful sincerity when Kao people referenced the culture. Employees at all levels and age groups talked animatedly about R&D’s above industry investment in fundamental research, the importance of seeking out the very best quality ingredients for their brands, the constant search for efficacy and safety, the accessibility and prevalence of providing refills and replacement materials but above all, the respect and collaborative spirit of the business as a whole.
These truths became foundational in the strategic development of the employee engagement programme ‘The Face of Kao’. This is a showcase of the unique culture of the business. Free to express themselves about what they believe in, Kao employees naturally demonstrated (unscripted) the strong integrity ‘gene’ throughout the business. They were proud that Kao enabled them to be their best selves. And you don’t hear that very often.
So in an era of fake news and ‘purpose-wash’, what we need and must demand from business is truth. Global brands must behave with integrity and should be actively improving society while making a profit. Huge influence and revenues come with huge responsibility. Being guided by ethical principles and a clear sense of purpose means business can and should be a major force for good in the world.
Feature image @Diego Jimenez