Marketing Brand Purpose Sustainability

For brands, impact is the new purpose


By Auro Trini Castelli | Chief Strategy Officer

October 10, 2022 | 9 min read

Purpose statements are no longer enough. As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, DDB chief strategy officer Auro Trini Castelli explains how marketers can make a sustainable difference during this crucial historical moment.

United Nations

“We cannot go on like this,” said UN secretary general António Guterres in his recent opening address of the annual high-level gathering in New York City for the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

The event was accompanied by additional high-level business and marketing summits involving both the public and private sector, all focused on sustainability.

According to the UN, the efforts made by each country to adapt to the impacts of climate change are not encouraging as they point to a nearly 14% increase in greenhouse emissions by 2030, instead of the sharp decline required to limit warming to meet the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Agreement.

Since governments aren’t doing enough and they can’t do it alone, the role that businesses will play is becoming increasingly important in making a significant difference and a collective societal impact. Their contribution is in demand, due to the rise of conscious consumerism that led brands to realize that the only way to grow perpetually is to grow sustainably.

Public consciousness has risen thanks to social media and everyone’s ability to see through the walls of company buildings and read through the practices of corporate giants and emerging startups, and to separate good citizens from bad actors.

Online platforms act as public megaphones of brands’ virtues and flaws, and as amplifiers of consumers’ praises or frustrations.

As a consequence, more and more brands have jumped on the purpose bandwagon, declaring their intent to “make the world a better place” or to “leave the world better than we found it.”

Yet, to do that effectively, brands need to take responsibility and follow with accountability, because real-world change requires real-world impact.

All easier said than done – until today.

Three major shifts are defining the new world order of marketing and purpose:

Shift 1: From environmental sustainability to sustainable development

The initial response to the rising threats to the environment led brands to embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices, environment, social, governance (ESG) standards, and green marketing as a way to reconcile their business needs with the collective need to protect the planet we live in.

Over time, everyone realized that problems are systemic, and so is progress. If you want to improve the health of the planet, you need to improve life conditions for all the people who inhabit it.

In 2015, the United Nations embraced this thinking with the introduction of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which expanded the idea of sustainability beyond environmentalism by including goals such as No Poverty (SDG #1), Quality Education (SDG #4), Gender Equality (SDG #5), Reduced Inequalities (SDG #10), and many others.

The Sustainable Development Goals finally provided companies and brands with a framework that could guide what type of impact they wanted to make and which goals they wanted to pursue in making it.

Since their introduction, companies such as Unilever have defined the SDGs as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to promote sustainable growth that works for everyone.

Lego has embraced Quality Education (SDG #4) and Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG #12) as a way to connect its mission “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow” to its colorful brick-based creations.

Nike has adopted three major goals (Good Health, Gender Equality, Decent Work and Economic Growth) as the areas where the company has the biggest potential to contribute to positive change, each of which is backed up by detailed and measurable 2025 targets.

Many more companies are following suit, so expect additional impact to follow.

Shift 2: From the shareholder economy to the stakeholder economy

An event that changed business forever took place on August 19, 2019, when more than 200 global chief executives met at the Business Roundtable to redefine the role of business in society and to give concrete meaning to the idea of ’stakeholder economy’.

According to this new business role model, companies should no longer exclusively protect the interests of their investors, but advance the interests of all the people and communities they touch while developing their business.

As a consequence, brands must now forge strong relationships with their employees, their customers, their partners and the communities they engage with, changing the way products are made and services are offered so that everyone can benefit from it.

The direct impact of this new way of thinking can increase everyone’s satisfaction and as a consequence build mutual loyalty in the long term.

REI takes the stakeholder economy to the next level. The brand believes in the idea that a life outdoors is a life well-lived, so its purpose is to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors for all.

REI sees time spent outside as a fundamental right for all. With initiatives like #OptOutside, the Cooperative Action Fund, Path Ahead Ventures, Wild Diversity, or the latest creation of a studio to develop stories that seek to shift perceptions of the outdoor experience, REI gives everyone – from its employees, to its customers, to organizations promoting equity and belonging in the outdoors – more chances to claim their rights to nature.

REI is a great example of how a brand can generate impact in its category by generating impact across society, as well as vice versa.

Shift 3: From the ambition of zero impact to the notion of positive impact

Impact is no longer seen as a negative thing, as long as it means making a desirable difference.

More importantly, impact is not only based on action, but also on setting up KPIs that can guide brand behaviors, actions and outcomes.

Measurable impact also implies the idea of progress, because ambitious goals require time and effort to be achieved. It’s why ambitious brands like Apple are publishing and releasing their progress reports every year, highlighting what’s been achieved and what’s next.

Another brand that emphasizes the importance of leading with exceptional ideas while following up on them is Morgan Stanley, which recently introduced its Investing with Impact platform, designed to help investors align their personal investments with their personal values.

The platform is powered by the Morgan Stanley Impact Quotient, which provides clients with a comprehensive framework to identify and prioritize over 100 social and environmental impact preferences, all centered on issues areas such as climate action, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and more – with an approach that is similar to the one set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Morgan Stanley IQ harnesses the insights of multiple third-party data sources and proprietary Morgan Stanley analytics to instantly assess the alignment of investments with those unique impact preferences. It also equips Morgan Stanley Financial Advisors with suggestions for investment solutions that may better align clients’ portfolios over time with the impact preferences that matter most to them.

Morgan Stanley demonstrates the importance of talking the walk, walking the talk and creating brand new paths to walk toward brand new outcomes.

The progressive adoption of the SDGs, the rise of the stakeholders economy and embracing impact as a positive force are changing the way brands create, operate and communicate forever.

All together, these shifts are contributing to the definition of a new sustainability playbook with six key principles at its core:

  1. Think about society, not just about categories: Don’t confine your brand within its industry – think about the impact that your industry should have across society.
  2. Climb the ladder: Think about positive impact as the ability to provide unique functional, emotional and societal benefits.
  3. Make it yours: Make sure that your desired impact is meaningfully related to your core business and the unique equity of your brand and not just a side-thought.
  4. Do, then say: Celebrating your impact is the best way to celebrate your purpose.
  5. Leave a legacy: In a society focused on instant gratification and driven by constant change, aim to make a lasting and meaningful impact.
  6. Measure everything: If you can’t measure your impact, try harder.

Embracing these principles will make brands not only more responsible, but more admirable and desirable.

More importantly, it will give brands a chance to join the new world order of business and marketing where the difference isn’t made by leading with purpose, but by leading by example.

Auro Trini Castelli is chief strategy officer at DDB New York. For more on what marketers and their partners need to do to succeed on a global level, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

Marketing Brand Purpose Sustainability

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