A reminder that green really is the colour of money

A photograph of Laurent Simon, the author of this piece

This week’s criticism of Unilever for allowing sustainability to distract it from its bottom line is misguided – there’s no need to pit profit against purpose.

Since Unilever shareholder Terry Smith has been complaining that the company has “lost the plot” over sustainability, I want to take issue with the suggestion that purpose within a business isn’t fundamental.

Long before Veganuary entered our cultural consciousness, people were becoming more belief-driven. You need only to look at most Cannes Lions and Effie Grand Prix winners from the past 10 years to realise that purpose has been guiding the ambitions of most brands.

The choices consumers make, whether it be picking what shampoo to buy or what shop to buy it from, are increasingly motivated by brands’ particular stands on issues that matter to them. Nearly nine in 10 people want brands to continue to be a positive influence and support the public good, according to VMLY&R’s Brand Asset Valuator. 

Purpose feeds profit 

Purpose versus profit is an artificial choice, because purpose doesn’t just drive brand awareness. Purpose drives growth, it opens new markets and creates new products, leading to sustainable business success, beyond short-term profit. 

And for those more fiscally minded, look at the work from Lombard Odier – a client we are proud to work with. It has shown that “sustainable investing is the way to generate long-term returns”. It makes it hard to argue that gaining more green paper doesn’t require green thinking. 

While some may think public commitments to sustainability harm the bottom line, we don’t have to look very hard to see that this isn’t exactly true. Unilever's 28 “sustainable living brands”  those trying to reduce their environmental footprint and increase their social impact – delivered 75% of the company’s growth in 2018. Brands within this portfolio, such as Dove, Vaseline and Lipton, also grew 69% faster on average than the rest of the business. 

We need to look holistically, especially as marketers, at why this is the case. In order to sell something, we need to make people care. Yes, products need to make business sense, but to move products, we need to move people. And we need to look at all parts of the brand experience and customer experience to understand what takes our consumers from product to purchase. 

If your sole focus is on the bottom line and shifting products, you’ll get a spike in sales, but a decline will eventually follow because purpose and profit feed each other. 

The purpose is your people

Not engaging with important social issues can also mean losing talented employees. In 2018, the Harvard Business Review reported that nine out of 10 people were willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work. 

Building purposeful brands and, for us, creating purposeful work requires having conversations that have value and meaning to staff. Without these discussions, there is a risk that talent seeks business destinations that stand with and for them in these cultural shifts.

We need to appreciate Unilever for what it is and what it is doing: a huge, global business that is able to create swathes of positive, tangible change through its sheer scale, and still makes impressive profits. 

As for our industry, which is built on selling products and ideas, we have a responsibility to celebrate this impact and work with businesses to support the way they talk about and invest in purpose. 

Together we might have a chance at building a better future, one spoon of Hellman’s at a time. 

Laurent Simon is UK chief creative officer at VMLY&R

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