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By Caroline Parry, Journalist

December 8, 2020 | 9 min read

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Organisations must develop an authentic brand purpose that chimes with the reality of their day-to-day business and that is respected and supported by their employees to succeed, particularly as the pandemic is testing the purpose and values of all companies.

View ‘Walking the Walk: How brand purpose is hitting a whole, new level' roundtable discussion on demand

View ‘Walking the Walk: How brand purpose is hitting a whole, new level' roundtable discussion on demand

These insights were the central themes discussed at a recent roundtable hosted by The Drum and WE Communications, which brought together leading marketers and social purpose experts to discuss how purpose is hitting a whole new level. Kenneth Hein, US editor at The Drum, moderated the discussion.

Amy Fuller, global chief marketing officer at Accenture, kicked off with an insight into how the professional services company developed its new purpose: to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity.

“We were really careful that purpose is not equal to social impact,” she explained. “It encompasses the commercial value you add and, of course, your principals, but for it to work and endure, it’s got to capture your day job.”

As an example of how Accenture is already bringing its new purpose to life, Fuller pointed to how the organisation has been helping its clients to reduce the environmental impact of their cloud migrations using a proprietary tool. The tool, Green Cloud, models how green a client's cloud idea could be. "That is an example of us living our values, but it is also inherently what we do in our day jobs," she added.

The panel widely agreed that moving beyond brand purpose fatigue requires authenticity, transparency and good communications. Duncan Young, director of business communications at the banking brand, NatWest, said organisations must move on from “virtue signalling” around issues as has been seen in the past.

According to WE Communications director Gillian Daines, this is why it is so essential for organisations to communicate about good work they are doing. “To lead your industry forward and to drive real change with other people and start to have an impact as a leader, you need to communicate and tell people what you are doing.”

Purpose in the time of Covid

Consumer scrutiny of these media messages has increased, particularly during the pandemic, says Deloitte Digital chief marketing officer, Becky Skiles. Skiles discussed research into both global and UK marketing trends which showed that customers are voting with their feet.

“They are not seeing the promise from the top line come all the way through to the way that brands are treating not just customers but their employees. Customers have been saying they will walk away from companies that say nice things in the media but do not treat their customers or employees with intent to mirror that purpose.”

UK banks, for example, have been seen to react to Covid in a positive way, said NatWest’s Young. “They have made more progress on reputation in the past eight months than they have in the over the eight years before.”

If consumers are observing your behaviour during the pandemic, you are either doing something they really like or something they really don’t like. Young added: “Generally you are a saint or a sinner but, on that basis, it offers a shot at redemption”

Lewis Woodward, global head of brand and communications at real estate company JLL, added that times of uncertainty and tension are an acid test for any organisation, and, if a business acts at odds with their stated purpose, they will also lose the confidence of their employees.

Ken Banks, head of social purpose at digital identity app, Yoti, said many commercial businesses have to trend a fine line between their everyday job and their purpose, as they can often be at odds.

He pointed to the mining industry, which causes many of the environmental problems it claims to solve, and Facebook, which has projects supporting democracy and human rights but gives a platform to hate speech. He added that this is something consumers are very aware of now.

Purpose: true all day, every day

People are the single most important dynamic in delivering purpose, said Accenture’s Fuller. “When we did the validation of delivering on our promise of technology and human ingenuity, we heard a lot about how much people loved it, but we had to ask ourselves is it true all day, every day.”

With the built environment contributing 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, JLL has to place its environmental impact at the core of its purpose. Launched earlier this year, its purpose of shaping the future of real estate for a better world applies to the active role JLL can play, but also the work it can do with its clients.

Woodward said it had set stringent targets and goals in line with the UN Sustainability Goals. He added: “What we are trying to do now is piece together evidence of authentic stories of how we are helping organisations rethink their future.

WE Communication’s Daines added that everyone in an organisation must be embedded in the belief and ambition at the heart of purpose strategies, and that internal and external messages need to be aligned.

She also highlighted the importance of staying focused but agile. Things will change and do not always go as planned; organisations must be transparent about their progress and agile enough to change tactics if that’s needed to succeed

“The world changes,” said Daines. “Things that are happening this year must have thrown a lot of plans off track. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be transparent about how that change has affected us and what we need to do to move forward.”

Doubling down on purpose

For Accenture’s Fuller, this summer’s anti-racist protests and movement provided a proof point that businesses could “choose to take or not take”.

The organisation is focusing on improving its workplace equality in the US, UK and South Africa where it can measure and manage its representation of diverse populations overall and in leadership. It is a target to be met by 2025.

“It is a way we can live our value system in a way that is directly relevant to what we do day and day out,” Fuller added. “Every piece of research that says if you are a responsible business, you achieve better financials.”

It also helps to attract great talent to your organisation, according to Yoti’s Banks, while NatWest’s Young added that seeing purpose in action is a powerful way to drive employee engagement and belief.

Young warned brands should be cautious when it comes to “doubling down” on purpose. He said: “Nice people don’t spend all their time telling you they are nice, people who are not so nice probably do. I think it probably goes the same for brands.”

Measuring success

If an organisation is making bold statements about targets and actions, then people want specific details, says WE Communication’s Daines. She highlighted work WE Communications has been doing with Microsoft on its sustainability strategy, through which it is sharing specific scientific details about how it will achieve its zero-carbon goal.

“Microsoft is showing respect for its audiences by saying ‘we think you can understand this, and we want to provide the evidence so you can measure how we are doing’.”

She added that it is just as important to acknowledge and be transparent about failure as success if organisations are serious about making a difference.

Actionable takeaways

Drawing the discussion to a close, the panel shared their key insights about taking purpose to a new level. Accenture’s Fuller said specific actions win organisations credibility, not sweeping statements.

For Deloitte’s Skiles, organisations need to “dial up the empathy”, while WE Communication’s Daines added that accountability and transparency should remain at the core of any purpose mission.

NatWest’s Young cautioned organisations to only talk about purpose when it is relevant. He said: “You should only activate purpose through your brand if that is an authentic representation of what your organisation is about.”

JLL’s Woodward reiterated the need to build purpose “from the inside out”, and Yoti’s Banks said organisations should look for purpose during a crisis but also beyond that.

Reflecting on the roundtable discussion, which was convened in conjunction with WE Communication, Daines concluded: “Consumers, investors and employees are more aware and more engaged with purpose today.

“Clear tangible goals, transparent measurement and reporting, co-creation with stakeholders and honesty about failures and gear-shifts – as well as the successes – are what is needed to really make an impact. And it’s impact – not just narrative–that everyone wants to see.

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