MONDAY 16 AUG 2021 1:27 PM


Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. Through the lens of sustainability comms, Rowley addresses what brands can do to measure and monitor purpose over time.

As increasing numbers of consumers say they care about the impacts brands are making on the world, having something worthy to stand for is now a legitimate part of business strategy. Consequently, brand ‘purpose’ has risen up the ladder in recent years, with supporters arguing that rallying around a shared corporate goal ‘to do good’ directly impacts the P&L.

Yet detractors are deeply cynical of its real link to profit, accusing corporate purpose of being superficial nonsense, or an unmeasurable conscience-absolving exercise. This has made purpose something of a contentious subject. But can we not place an intangible value on ‘good’ other than share price and P&L?

Viewed through the lens of sustainability – the challenge of our generation – I certainly argue that we can and must. Plenty of brands are already proving that not everything they do has to increase profit. However, if more businesses aspire to do good as global temperatures rise, they need to do so with the right strategies in place.

So, let’s take the best of what we know about brand purpose, put aside any disagreements for now, and consider how it is possible to demonstrate measurable good in the real world.

The organising thought

Purpose’, in the green terms defined above, is one of the five Ps of sustainability comms - a new set of principles to help businesses play a positive and functional role in the fight against climate change.

It sits alongside persuasion, product, promotion and partnerships, and is worthy of being singled out here because, when approached correctly, will impact every employee within a business, permeating from top to bottom. This then extends out into products and services that can achieve positive impacts.

It does this by providing a central, organising thought to inform both an internal company mission, and an outward, consumer-facing statement. But that also requires it to be simple, clear and relevant. I’ve seen some businesses hang enormous mission statements from banners and rally an entire workforce. But I’ve also witnessed poorly articulated statements that hardly anyone within a business can explain – let alone their customers.

This is worth noting, as research from Porter Novelli suggests that a strong and well communicated corporate purpose helps all stakeholders adapt to shifting business fundamentals. However, clarity of message is only half the task - it must also be matched by relevance. If a brand embraces a cause too far removed from its field of expertise, it is unlikely to resonate. Consumers need to feel that a brand has a legitimate right to operate in the space and must understand why it would be campaigning for it.

A good example here is Volkswagen Group. The car manufacturer – whose brands include VW, Skoda, Porsche and SEAT – is on a mission to electrify Europe and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It is clearly articulating its responsibilities through public facing collateral, and has gone so far as enshrining this purpose in the new tag line, Way to Zero, for the VW brand.

It works because it is easy for a consumer to grasp the motivation and the benefits without making a great mental leap. Furthermore, it is in lock-step with the product offering, and it is reduced to a simple phrase that works both internally, whether in the boardroom or the production floor, and externally in campaign communications.

Ensure accountability

If brands are to secure real credibility, however, they must of course also deliver. This is where purpose can help define and set achievable goals - thus making it something that’s inherently measurable.

This is an essential part of the process, but not necessarily an easy one. With no common benchmarks allowing a comparison between businesses, how can consumers compare the relative impact, say, of one supermarket’s reduction in palm oil to another’s move towards carbon neutrality?

To date, the best solution is to use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a proxy. If all brands aligned their internal targets with these goals, collectively they would be delivering on a common purpose, using a common language.

Once this is achieved, goals can then be effectively tracked, roadmaps defined, and progress is made transparent. This is all part of ensuring absolute accountability to the unifying purpose a brand adopts, and a part of the process that sets sustainability apart from any other categories within purpose.

The final consideration is to embed adaptability into the goals. Though targets should be measurable, relatable and trackable, it does not mean they cannot be revised as science delivers new learnings. Indeed, businesses should feel comfortable enough to change their targets as and when is necessary – to do so isn’t counter-intuitive, it is about responding to complexity.

Note, for example, the chorus of scientific voices that are currently urging governments to rethink the idea of carbon neutrality and offsetting. As the scientific advice translates into better ways of tackling the problem, then businesses must adapt accordingly – and be open with consumers about why.

Similarly, if governments bring their sustainability targets forward, as both the UK and US have already, brands should factor this into their plans and have the capacity to accelerate their own green efforts.

The ultimate KPI

The world stands on the brink, and we need businesses to change as everyone plays their individual part in bringing it back. I believe that purpose is a central strand in helping achieve that, and brands should secure a role for it, even if it does not link back to an immediate ROI.

To do so, they should ensure credibility and authenticity by communicating around an issue related to expertise; and ensure targets remain relatable, measurable and reflect current thinking. And getting this right contributes to the ultimate KPI: saving our precious earth. After all, no one will make a dime in a ruined world.


Access the full Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business report here.