In focus: Communicators’ power to drive business purpose

At the PR Decoded conference, pros take a new approach to enunciating an organization’s role in bettering stakeholders’ lives. For examples, look to Netflix, Mondelez and Levi Strauss.

Companies that can’t clearly articulate their reason for existence—beyond making a quick dollar—won’t be in business by the end of the coming decade.

That was the bold claim by Disney’s former head of innovation, Duncan Wardle, in kicking off PR Week’s PR Decoded conference in Chicago. The day and a half of sessions focused on how PR pros and corporate communicators can help their organizations attract customers, employees and investors around the unique value they offer their communities.

Wardle put the problem in the context of defunct brands like Blockbuster versus innovators like Netflix that have adapted to disruption and rapid technological change.

The difference? A brand that pursues iteration versus a brand that embraces expansive thinking. Iterative thinking leads to price hikes and new fees, revenue generators and profit centers. A more expansive approach that focuses on consumer pain points can offer ideas that result in both increased profits and happier consumers.

Thinking outside the shelf

Netflix imagined a video store that didn’t have a physical location, didn’t charge late fees and was built on technology like YouTube that had already been in existence for years. Once the world’s largest video rental chain, Blockbuster was reduced to a single store last spring.

Why is Netflix-esque visionary thinking essential for the decade ahead? And what does it have to do with “purpose”?

Brand purpose is the guiding tenet that allows your company to think outside the box, respond creatively to a crisis, draw insights from data to better serve customers and tell better stories about your brand. That purpose is also what allows a company to speak out on a social issue in an authentic way.

The generation of consumers and workers now coming of age “grew up through 9/11, came of age during the market crash of 2009 and watched their parents lose jobs and more,” says Wardle. “They don’t trust corporations.”

Instead, he argues that companies must find—and live—a mission beyond creating value for shareholders or not only will people not want to buy your products, but they won’t want to work for you, either.

Snackability beyond content

Mondelez International, the global snack food brand the incorporates products like Oreo and Cadbury, realized it needed to redefine its purpose as consumers looked for heathier and more sustainable ways to satisfy their cravings.

Russ Dyer, VP and chief of communications for Mondelez, and Martin Renaud, global CMO for Mondelez, described their journey to a new brand purpose by using data to inform what consumers cared about.

When they did their social listening and looked through employee surveys and customer feedback over the years, they learned that everyone was looking for a way to keep snacking, but do it sustainably.

“People don’t want to choose between snacking and eating right,” says Renaud. This led Mondelez to articulate a model of “the right snack, in the right moment, at the right time.”

By thinking about the customer, Mondelez could address topics like portion control and mindful snacking, sustainable sourcing of ingredients and preparation, and more.

Engaging your workforce

Working with employees is a huge part of authentically embracing a brand purpose. You want your employees and other stakeholders to embody your mission, whether that’s making everyone an athlete a la Nike, or getting people to snack in the right way.

Mondelez took the extraordinary step of engaging everyone in its global operation and, with technology, share the message of the new brand purpose directly from the CEO. No filtering or watering down as the message spread throughout the organization. Directly from the source.

The company also brought 250 leaders from its operations around the world to Vienna for workshops to discuss purpose and implementing this new brand strategy. The company created toolkits to empower local teams worldwide to engage and expand on these issues.

Dyer and Renaud had suggestions for companies looking to find new meaning for their brands:

  1. Touch the tension.

If everyone agrees, then it’s not a true purpose of your organization, according to Renaud.

For Mondelez, the company’s leaders wanted to pursue transformation, and that wasn’t going to happen if there was total agreement. Change should be scary and meet with a little resistance. Renaud and Dyer warn against a process that feels too easy.

  1. Don’t overbake it.

Dyer warns that you can overthink the process.

Local teams have to be able to respond and adjust to fit their specific audiences and niches. If your employees are just bombarded with toolkits and prescribed programs, you won’t see the success you need.

  1. Measure—or it won’t happen.

It might feel cliché to argue that everything ties back to measurement, but Dyer and Renaud stressed the importance of being able to show that your brand purpose has a real business benefit.

The good news? There are plenty of metrics and measurement programs that can help you show the impact of your willingness to engage on important social issues.

Case study: Levi Strauss

A striking example of an organization that fully embodies “purpose” as a core tenet of its brand mission is Levi Strauss.

Chief communications officer Kelly McGinnis and Senior VP and CMO Jen Sey shared how the denim clothing brand came to its decision to engage on the issue of gun safety and regulation.

For the Levi brand, it starts with eschewing fear. “Fear leads to being inauthentic,” says Sey.

Levi Strauss is uniquely positioned as a brand to stand by its values, because the company has long taken action on social issues. It was the first Fortune 500 company to offer benefits for same-sex partners, a move of which Sey and McGinnis are very proud. However, they admit that those values weren’t as widely shared in previous years.

“It was seen as gauche,” says Sey. However, now it is important for business leaders to speak up about the good work they are doing in their communities. To do this, it is crucial to find your authentic voice and not be seen as bragging, or as Sey and McGinnis dub it: “chestpounding.”

For authenticity, look within

The key is to marry your internal efforts with your external efforts. “When it starts with employees, it comes from an authentic place,” says Sey.

It was by listening to employees that Levi’s came to have a stance on guns. Employees were telling their managers that they didn’t feel safe in the workplace when customers came in with openly displayed firearms. It came to a head when a customer shot himself in the foot in a Levi’s dressing room trying on jeans.

That’s when Levi’s started asking customers not to bring guns into its stores, but Sey and McGinnis say the company didn’t start speaking out on gun regulation policy on a national scale until the Parkland shooting in February 2018. Levi Strauss found its hook into the issue by aligning itself with the youth activist movement born out of that tragedy.

“We are the choice of rebels with a cause,” says Sey, and therefore the youth movement was a good fit for the clothing brand, with a Parkland activist featured in a recent brand video.

Levi’s added another layer of authenticity to the issue by engaging the business community to sign a letter to Congress calling on new gun regulations. As of September the letter had over 150 companies signed on.

The company has also worked to help its community be more involved in government, offering employees paid time off to vote, working with celebrity influencers to encourage people to vote and even registering voters inside Levi Strauss stores.

For Levi’s, Sey and McGinnis say it’s worth the effort. They prove it with careful measurement that they argue can be captured with their advanced metrics. On the marketing side, Sey says Levi’s has the capability to measure profit return on investment, not just revenue, and attribute every dollar spent, whether that’s on TV, on a pop-up display, or some other activation.

With this kind of granular attention to detail, Levi’s proves that speaking out can benefit the bottom line.


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