Industry experts weigh in on brand purpose obstacles

"The hardest part is staying on your message," says Mekanism CEO Jason Harris.

Brand purpose is one of the hottest topics in the industry right now, but getting it right can be a challenge. On Monday, a panel of industry experts took the stage at Advertising Week Europe to discuss the ins and outs of brand purpose.

The panel included Mekanism CEO and Creative Alliance Co-Founder Jason Harris, David & Goliath Chairman and Founder David Angelo, Aston Martin Director of Global Marketing and Strategy Gerhard Fourie and Ben & Jerry’s U.K. Social Mission Manager Rebecca Baron.

Find out what the agency and brand executives have to say about how culture is having an impact on brand purpose and more below.

What's the most challenging aspect of keeping a brand's purpose relevant and engaging with consumers and stakeholders?

HARRIS: Once you’ve found your purpose, the hardest part is staying on your message. It’s tempting to want to get into every conversation of the day-and chase trends. But if it doesn’t go back to the soul of your brand and your reason for existing, your brand will confuse the audience and worst of all be inauthentic.  

FOURIE: Good brand purposes must be a long-term agenda shared by customers and stakeholders based on what matters to them, that’s what makes brand purposes more compelling than a company vision or mission.  In terms of keeping it engaging, you have to hard-wire the significance of the purpose into every aspect of the business from the beginning, otherwise they gradually erode to become the reserve of CSR, marketing or corporate communication. 

When the people who stitch the seats of our cars, have as much invested in our purpose as our executives and our customers, it will naturally provide us with the content and, most importantly, proof that we are making progress towards our purpose.

ANGELO: First and foremost, before a brand can embrace its purpose, it has to have a clear idea of who it is and what it stands for. In other words, its core truth. As simplistic as that might sound, that’s actually the first challenge. That core truth is the foundation, the blue print or ethos of the brand. And it needs to be embraced from the inside of the company out. And that starts with the leadership, leaders who authentically believe in and embrace the brand truth and never waver. They have to live it in everything they do. They have to be the primary brand evangelists. And they must lead the charge in inspiring everyone who touches the brand – employees, partners, stakeholders – to live that truth and essentially become brand ambassadors. Because when you align the truth of the brand, with the truth of the people who work on the brand with the truth of the people buying the brand’s products, that’s when you have an authentic brand movement that generates consumer engagement and relevance.

BARON: Ben & Jerry’s social mission is about creating social and environmental impact through systemic change, and in order to do that we need to bring our fans along with us into a movement. The challenge often with engaging people with Ben & Jerry’s social mission is that because we’re trying to drive systemic change, what we’re doing can be tricky to communicate.

For example, at the moment we are working on a campaign to win the right to work for people seeking asylum. But to get people to a point where they’re happy to sign a petition about that, you have to go through educating people about who people seeking asylum are, the fact that people seeking asylum currently aren’t allowed to work, and that this is a terrible thing for a multitude of reasons, and that it’s within the government’s gift to change this, and we can help make them change it, before exciting them about getting involved.

How has culture (e.g., political, economic, social issues) had an impact on what your brand or agency is doing from a purpose perspective?

HARRIS: When Mekanism launched It’s On Us, it opened my eyes to the power and more importantly, the responsibility we have as marketers to uses our powers for good. So we formalized internal initiatives to ensure that no matter how busy we are, we’re using our resources to work with organizations that  shape culture, inspire action, and solve the most urgent problems facing our world.

FOURIE: Yes and no.  Yes because I think that a macro level we are seeing a general erosion in the confidence in traditional institutions.  That makes the importance of business pursuing meaningful positive change in the world more important than ever before, whether that change is societal, cultural or environmental.  So to that extent, the pressure to walk the talk is higher than ever; not just from the outside in, but also the internal pressure on ourselves.

And no because we all sign up to brand purposes as long-term ambitions that don’t get fundamentally changes one year to the next.  There will always be challenges to address, emphasis that shift, but as long as we recognize that purpose is a driver of business growth, not a distraction from it, the overall approach doesn’t change.

ANGELO: No question we’re living in unique times, with hotbed social issues giving rise to movements, activism, protests all in the name of changing the world for good. It’s as if the veil has been lifted and, thanks to social media, we are exposed more than ever to both the darker, and almost simultaneously, altruistic side of humanity. More and more people are speaking out against injustice, there’s zero tolerance for violence, abuse, inequality, they’ve got the megaphone and not afraid to use it.

Just recently, tens of thousands of school kids, from Australia to America, skipped school on a Friday to march in the first-ever global climate strike. These are kids from countries impacted severely by climate change. 

For sure, this kind of culture has prompted a desire, a need for brands and agencies to be more purpose driven. In fact, they have to, it’s the only way they’ll survive. More than ever, people, customers, want to get behind brands that give back to the greater good. They want to share a mindset, they don’t want to be sold to. They are demanding it – the world is demanding it. It’s an incredible opportunity to make a big difference. 

BARON: At Ben & Jerry’s we campaign on issues that come from our values of justice and equality; and so our social mission is really about what are the biggest issues in those spaces right now, and where can we effect change. When it comes to social mission in our business operations, those areas don’t change that much – it’s about limiting the environmental impact of our dairy farming, it’s about values-led suppliers such as Greyston Bakery, it’s about making sure we’re hitting our carbon emission reduction targets. With the activism side of social mission, we look at the landscape of issues we care about – like systemic racism, like refugees, like climate change – and try and find areas where there’s a little give, so that we can get some change through and chip away at the bigger issue.

Has the past year been different than other in terms of cultural or political pressure related to brand purpose? If yes, how so? 

HARRIS: When the country feels like it is regressing and everyone is entrenched on their particular sides, we become divided. So today, it’s  more important than ever for brands to take a stand and make it clear what side you are on. Brands are transitioning from just CSR to claiming and living their purpose. 

ANGELO: Yes, I think so. For starters, you have a very different consumer today than you did years ago. We went from passive consumers to ones who not only actively engage with brands, they also have the ability or power to impact whether a brand is successful or not simply by expressing their point of view. Consumers trust other consumers and are very vocal about what they like and don’t like. And that can have a significant impact on a brand’s reputation. 

Secondly, today there are so many platforms to express points of view on anything and everything. We get real-time commentary, 24/7. We are so inundated with the latest news on cultural, political, social issues, that brands have no choice but to pay attention and try to help provide a solution to a problem.

And lastly, in years past, purpose-driven brands were not the norm. Non-profits were the leaders in this arena. Today, there’s an expectation that brands take a stand and be a part of a solution for change. They need to show impact – that’s the new KPI that consumers are looking for. They are more sophisticated and aware and actually expect that companies lead with purpose. And so what’s happening is, when companies like Patagonia, Nike, Warby Parker and Everlane lead the charge, it creates a new norm for brands. And when brands move it that direction, it creates a deeper connection with their consumer, more than traditional brands ever could.

BARON: This year getting anything done in terms of social impact has been tricky because so much of the political agenda and collective bandwidth of the country has been tied up in Brexit. Whatever you think about Brexit, the fact is that huge issues like climate change and refugee rights have taken a real back seat, at a time when action is needed more than ever. The past three years we’ve been talking more about refugees and people seeking asylum, and this is a pretty divisive issue at the moment.

Describe the most important key to brand purpose in one word.

ANGELO: Truth.

FOURIE: Leadership.

BARON: Impact. 

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