At the dawn of 2022 one of Unilever’s top shareholders questioned its prioritisation of purpose and sustainability, suggesting it would do better to just focus on its products and businesses. Whilst this shareholder, Fundsmith, is undoubtedly savvy at investing, this view may be short term in its understanding of what consumers are seeking from the brands they buy.
Unilever in fact realised that, for many, selling quality mayonnaise, bleach and ice cream is no longer enough. This might have hit the mark in 2017, when we were driven to buy more and convenience and price were king. But the subsequent, global embrace of purposeful content (Blue Planet), influencers (Greta Thunberg) and brand activism (Patagonia vs. Trump) ignited a well-documented shift towards conscious consumerism.
Now, we are in a very specific context as to why organisational purpose is so important. Global change and uncertainty, the likes of which we have never experienced, have left us reassessing the institutions in our lives. The duty of care these businesses have shown employees during and post pandemic matters; their stance for/against government actions matters. The cost of living is increasing rapidly and we face the prospect of troubling shifts around the world causing further uncertainty. At this time, where many are working from home without the richness of face-to-face contact and collaboration, we are asking – interrogating – the value the organisations in our lives deliver, beyond their own commercial success.
Brands2Life Managing Director, Corporate, Harriet Rich, says, “Today, businesses have to be relevant. They must look to the wider world to understand their place within it. What’s the pressing platform or issue that your organisation is uniquely qualified to address? How do you make sense of this in terms of people, practice, profit and a positive impact on society?”
Communications Directors can play a pivotal role in distilling this and turning it into something that everyone (internally and externally) relates to, believes in and is inspired by. And once this is created, they can, as the brand custodians, hold the board to account on it. But where to start?
First step; what exactly is purpose? At Brands2Life, we define it as that which makes your business relevant to the world beyond the customer; how you contribute to society and the planet. For Unilever this is about creating quality products, using innovation as a force for good, managing sustainable supply chains, looking after employees and sourcing raw materials responsibly.
All of this makes good commercial sense. It needs to do so if it is to stand the test of time. We need more businesses to adopt these practices to ensure long-term systemic change. Encouragingly, in 2022 it does seem that the largest of enterprises are working in earnest on purpose strategies and communicating ESG milestones. And there are many exciting start-ups and scale-ups, like allplants, Soaper Duper and Yeo Valley, that are leading the market in purpose driven growth.
Brands2Life Practice Director, Dan Bond, comments, “Practically, if your company is clear on its purpose, it becomes a decision-making aid. It will be a real guide when considering: if we say this, does it ring true? Should we hire this person? Should we buy this company? Should we invest in this asset?”
So, if your business has prioritised profits and growth over societal contribution, the challenge is now knowing how to rebalance and refine; to put purpose at the heart of everything you do.
Our methodology for doing this revolves around four Ps of purpose: big focus areas regarding People, Partnerships, Practice and Profit. All of these are evaluated to ensure the purpose you communicate is genuine and will stand up to both scrutiny and the test of time. Our expertise stretches from the discovery phase right through to action and activation. It is driven by the understanding that every company will be at a different stage of ‘purpose maturity’.
“You need to dig into the salience of what you do and why it’s useful in a broader context,” says Harriet. “It’s about creating a higher belief in the mission of the business and the value it serves society.”
The good news is that this is entirely achievable for most companies.
“More organisations are more purposeful than they realise,” she continues. “It’s about having a systematic approach to unearthing, aligning and articulating it; then putting it front and centre.”
With your purpose defined or redefined, the next step is to communicate it. But this step comes with several caveats.
“The challenge can be communicating your purpose in a fresh, meaningful and inspiring way,” says Dan, adding, “genuine change is often not sexy, headline grabbing or even tangible as big moments of news. So, you need to talk about purpose externally very carefully – this is communication, not promotion.”
Yet an investment in becoming more purposeful should be communicated. It will positively impact everything from employer branding to investor support.
A decade ago, many large companies saw charity work and corporate sustainability as enough to fulfil an obligation to society. Now, EY reports that three quarters of executives believe the integration of purpose creates value for both the short and long-term of their companies.
There’s certainly consumer demand to get this right. After years of misinformation and false promises, the public is highly attuned to inauthentic claims. With the stakes now so high, it is critical that brands define their purpose more clearly and use legitimate, transparent and considered communications to find relevance in the world and customers willing to support them.