Martin Johnston, Managing Director, Earth Strategies
If there is a headline to come out of 2021’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity – other than virtual awards ceremonies being no doubt more sober affairs than their in-person predecessors – it is that brands communicating purpose are leading the way. Jurors rewarded creative ideas like Bodyform’s ‘Womb Stories’ and Dove’s ‘Courage is Beautiful’, highlighting campaigns that promote a purpose, rather than just a product.
This is as it should be. The notion that brands should exist to do something more than make money was once overdue and is now well-established.
At its heart, the idea of a brand having a ‘purpose’ is that it does something beneficial for people or the planet – creating value beyond simply making profit. The last decade has seen the conversation about business purpose move into the mainstream, so that most brands now consider a mission statement a must-have. Only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs believe their companies should “mainly focus on making profits and not be distracted by social goals”; and 62% of US employees say their organisation has a purpose statement. On the face of it, this is a good thing. The bar has been raised on what is expected of the world’s businesses.
The less fortunate result, however, is the creation of a bandwagon that any business can now jump on. These days, its most common manifestation is a hollow ‘mission statement’, conjured up by a marketing department or brand consultancy as a way of giving a business something good to say about itself.
In this sense, ‘purpose’ has followed in the footsteps of ‘sustainability’. Once undeniably a valuable and useful goal, it has now been marketed to the point of meaninglessness. ‘Green’ strategies have given way to greenwashing, just as meaningful purpose statements have been diluted into purpose-washing.
Now that purpose has reached buzzword status, we need something new – something more specific and well-defined. Something that speaks to the original intention and value of purpose, but also moves the conversation forward in a more meaningful way.
Above all, we need something that is centred on progress. And progress isn’t possible without action: real, concrete tangible steps forward.
This is not the remit of ‘brands’ as we know them. So, at Earth, we think instead about ‘brand value systems’. We examine how a brand creates and communicates value: in what ways does it offer something beneficial to society and the planet? And where does this value (or lack thereof) exist across the organisational system: its supply chain, workplaces, product design and so on?
This approach requires that the conversation about what a brand is starts with the walk, not the talk. Meaning that, by necessity, the brand no longer belongs only to the marketing department. It breaks out of that particular boardroom, and lives across every aspect of the business’s activities – from logistics and HR, to sourcing and sustainability. It also means that any discussion of a brand’s purpose is decentralised, so it can be owned by every part of the business.
Social investment, in this context, becomes integral to a business’s operations. Traditionally, social investment is often side-lined under a separate brand, consigned to the realm of ‘CSR’ (another bolt-on approach), where its impact is limited in scope. But when social investment is part of an effective brand value system – and therefore aligned to every aspect of the business’s activities – it can work a lot harder. Instead of being kept small in its silo, it can create opportunities to think bigger, and think differently. Social investment that is fully integrated as part of a brand value system has the potential to deliver stronger results not just for society, but also – because of its more visible and authentic impact on people and planet – for the business itself.
The natural result of the brand value system approach is that a company’s words and actions start to line up. A company’s marketing team can no longer say one thing when their annual report and supply chain data says something else. Some companies may choose to spend their marketing budget on action programmes, because it makes more sense for their brand value system. And when money does go into ad campaigns, the message will be about achievements rather than intentions.
Ultimately, the result is companies that are effortlessly honest. And isn’t that what purpose should be all about?