The Drum's new columnist, Unilever's Alex Tait, on why brands need to embrace purpose

Alex Tait is founder of Entropy, a media, content and digital consultancy and co-founder of the Coalition of Reform in Political Advertising.

Alex has worked in senior marketing leadership roles at diverse companies including American Express, Royal Mail and Kellogg’s. Most recently he was media & marketing services director, UK & Ireland at Unilever.

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Over the last few years I’ve written a lot for the trade press about technology and marketing, both being passions of mine. Starting a new job this year, and also reading What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, has made me reflect on the place of ethics, not only in digital marketing but also in the wider world as businesses look ahead to 2016 in order to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

Kelly’s book is wide-ranging, but central to his thesis is the idea that there is a kind of evolving technology he calls the “technium”, that develops with a degree of inevitability in a certain direction in accordance with the circumstances of the technology that preceded it. In other words, if you were to rewind time and replay it again and again, everything, from the hammer to the internet would prove to have been fairly inevitable. It’s an interesting book and I recommend reading it to get a more nuanced understanding of the concept than I have time to present here.

Part of Kelly’s argument, however, is that, despite the inevitability of the way technology unfolds (including the technology embraced by businesses and marketers), its character is not inevitable. The internet and the current debate about ‘net neutrality’ can serve as an example: whether or not access to all content should be enabled equally, regardless of its source and without favouring or blocking websites. The internet could be national or transnational, non-profit or commercial, depending on which protocol is used. As Kelly points out, these choices of ‘character’ have a huge impact on the world which, incidentally, is no doubt why the net neutrality debate has got so many people fired up.

All the talk in the last few years of businesses ‘digitising’ is ultimately just about how they embrace technology and, as the varieties of technology become more numerous and present organisations with opportunities, the choices we make will increasingly come under the spotlight.

For marketing it could be the choices we make as innovative marketers and how those choices affect consumers or society as a whole. In the mid- or long-term for example, it could be hard to even predict applications of artificial intelligence (already used in marketing of course by, for example, the programmatic industry using algorithms to find patterns in consumer behaviour to serve relevant ads) or even biotechnology and robotics.

I believe the choices brands make already do, and in the future increasingly will, affect the purchasing behaviour of consumers.

Arguably, in the age of transparency we live in, and that is surely here to stay, there has never been a closer link between businesses’ marketing, their propositions and the values they stand for. And, in an era where many brands are struggling for cut through due to media fragmentation, multi-screening, ad blocking and general ad clutter, it can surely be an important differentiator.

To look beyond my technological starting point, but to come back to the central point of this article about the choices organisations and brands make, this is what makes the broader idea of ‘brands with purpose’ resonate with me. They are brands that know what they aspire to be which affects the behaviour within their company, their products and, ultimately, the impact they have on the world. You’ll have no doubt have heard a reasonable amount about ‘brands with purpose’ over the last few years, but are you one of the marketers that hasn’t so far seen a link with your brand?

Having been in Unilever’s business for a reasonable amount of time now, I find the company’s mission to ‘make sustainable living commonplace’ both progressive and inspiring. It’s been well reported but is worth repeating that some of the fastest growing brands in Unilever’s portfolio are the ‘sustainable living’ brands, like Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and Comfort, defined as contributing towards the company’s goal of doubling its business while reducing its environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact. And aside from our purpose impacting our brands’ performance, our HR team points to employee engagement, and it being one of the reasons we are the third most searched for brand on LinkedIn.

The journey Unilever has been on may not inevitably lead to all other businesses following in its footsteps (not least because few brands have the scale of a Unilever), but as Kelly’s thinking on the ‘character’ of technology suggests, more brands embracing purpose driven strategies should have a significant impact for all of us. The Drum’s relaunch rallying cry that “marketing has the power to change the world” and initiatives like Do It Day present a positive challenge to forward-thinking marketers.

Alex Tait is Unilever's UK and Ireland media director, and now a columnist for The Drum. He tweets @ASTait

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