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Tomorrow night, I’ve been invited to join a group of people brought together by Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed on the subject of “brand purpose”. Weed has made a name for himself and, with CEO Paul Polman, for Unilever as a whole by putting this concept right at the heart of their work in the world.  

I’m definitely a fan.  Brands should be purposeful, and Unilever have shown what can be achieved with this approach in a mainstream way that is making the rest of the world (starting with their old friends at Procter & Gamble) take note.  They’ve started a corporate race whose direction is up not down – competing not just on eliminating cost, but on creating social impact – and they’ve shown through brands like Lifebuoy and Domestos that there’s business advantage to be had even in categories like soap and toilet disinfectant.  It’s not just Ben & Jerry’s any more; Unilever now have a strong position from which to argue to their peers that “if we can do it, so can you.”  More power to Weed and co for convening this event to push that logic further.

It’s firmly in the spirit of support, then, that I have one note of caution to raise.  

My worry is that the language of brand will allow what could and should be a deeply strategic shift in the logic of business to become co-opted and instrumentalised.  In short, I would much rather go one step further, and talk about business purpose rather than brand purpose.  

The core problem is that brand purpose too easily becomes a challenge only for the Marketing Director; starting from where the people in this role are and how they have been trained, the result is all too often the co-option of what should be a deep existential question into a tactic to be used to increase short-term sales.  This has consequences both inside and outside the organisation.  

Internally, when brand purpose is judged by its short-term sales success, it is all too likely to be adopted unevenly or changed too quickly, resulting in inconsistency, or even dropped entirely.  The nature of purposeful work is that it must be held to over time to succeed.  The commitment must be deep and authentic.

Unilever’s own journey is testament to this, and journey seems the appropriate word.  A few years ago, I co-authored a report on ethics in advertising in which we cited the inconsistency between two of their brands: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and the flagrant objectification of women in advertising for Lynx (or Axe as it is known outside the UK).  It seemed brand purpose worked to sell to one target audience, less so for another.  We were not the only ones to take note, and significant reputational damage followed.  What happened next is the most significant point: rather than backing down from Dove’s stance, Unilever have moved Lynx on from “Spray More Get More” to “Make Love Not War”, and a relationship with charity Peace One Day.  

Other organisations might not be so strong.  Arguably Unilever’s response can be traced back not to the logic of brand purpose, but to a higher idea of purpose: existential not instrumental; strategic not tactical; core business purpose, not just brand purpose.  

What mattered was what Unilever – as a whole organisation, led by the whole C-suite – are trying to do in the world.  Their response started not from the question of what would sell immediately, but why the organisation deserved to exist in the first place; and it pushed them to change Lynx, not Dove.  (Unilever’s journey continues, though: Indian arm Hindustan Unilever retains in its portfolio Fair & Lovely, a controversial skin lightening cream, with a highly questionable brand purpose of “enabling women to fulfil their dreams”.)

It’s the external consequence of the distinction between business purpose and brand purpose that is most important, though.  

If you start from the purpose of the business as a whole, your motivation will be to fulfil that purpose, and you will be open to working with people to do it.  You will see your customers as a source of energy, and we the customers will be willing to share our energy with you.  This is when change will really happen: when purposeful businesses see people not just as consumers, who can only express themselves through purchasing their products, but as potential participants in a cause who can and want to act in many ways – as parents, as employees, as shareholders, as citizens, and so much more – to make the world better, not just shop.

Enlightened businesses are starting to tiptoe into this space, but most still stand more or less actively and obstructively in the way.  Pursuing brand purpose as a sales tactic, marketing executives keep us in our little box as consumers, capable of expressing our humanity only through product choice.  

Unilever have started to tiptoe encouragingly in this direction in recent years, with initiatives like Project Sunlight and Collectively trying to engage people in ways that at least go beyond one brand.  The consumer mindset, though, is proving hard to shake.  Both initiatives still very quickly reduce to glorified advertorial; both still limit what people can do to product purchase or at most usage behaviours.  This is the next innovation frontier: and if Unilever can break this mould too, mobilising customers of their brands not just to purchase their products but to act in support of their business purpose in all the ways we are capable of, then we might really have something worth shouting about.  

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