FIVE MINUTES WITH SIMON MILTON
Simon Milton, founder of Pulse Brands, talks to Communicate magazine about why embracing 'purpose' is now vital to business success, the pitfalls to avoid and how brands can authentically embrace CSR.
Why is having a solid brand purpose essential for businesses to survive in this moment in time?
Even before the pandemic hit, the multitude of research into generational attitudinal shifts all pointed to the same thing: people expect more of businesses. COVID-19 is cementing this view. Right now, there are countless companies in survival mode; but I believe that the companies who are best placed to navigate the new world are those who are the most clear-headed. And that involves taking a step back to think deeply about why they exist.
Every business has a purpose, and that the best businesses use their purpose to not only drive their performance – but also deliver a positive impact on the world. Why is this important? Because I have long believed that we are close to reaching a tipping point where the majority of citizens realise that governments, businesses, investment communities and we the consumer have failed to address our most pressing social and environmental problems.
Businesses exist to serve people and the planet. And because of this, business has a huge role to play in addressing some of the greatest challenges the world has ever faced.Purpose matters, therefore, not just because it is a tool to harness the potential of the workforce and to meaningfully engage with customers and stakeholders, it is also a pathway to a broader understanding of the corporation’s role within society, to give it a continued licence to operate.
How can businesses avoid ‘purposewash pitfalls’? What should they do instead?
There’s lots you can do, but here are three important tips: first, don’t mix up purpose with vision and mission. Purpose is not about what you want to achieve, or how you do it. Businesses exist to serve others, so why does your organisation exist? Your purpose is your North Star that directs everything and enables you to stay true to your beliefs, particularly during challenging times. Tesla’s vision is to “create the most compelling car company of the 21st century” and its mission is to do so by designing the “quickest and most energy-efficient cars on the road.” But their purpose is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Doing purpose well means never losing sight of why you do what you do.
Second, Purpose needs to be steeped in the DNA of an organisation, not something that resides just with the CEO or the Board. If it doesn’t make sense or isn’t recognised on the factory floor, canteen or reception, then it’s either unclear, irrelevant or inauthentic. Doing it right means auditing attitudes and behaviours from the bottom up. At Pulse, when we were developing the brand for Iraq’s Rumaila oilfield, we spent time out in the field talking to the individuals who manned facilities about what mattered to them, so that when the organisation’s values took shape they rang true with the 7,000 strong workforce.
Finally, for your purpose to take hold, personal and collective ownership is required. Just identifying and articulating your purpose is not enough. What comes next matters even more. On a practical level, this means baking it in to how the business operates in terms of hiring, appraisals and compensation, championing pioneers, and demonstrating examples of purpose being lived.
In what ways does purpose drive profit?
Let’s be clear: navigating profit and purpose is extraordinarily challenging. And without profit, businesses stagnate in their own rhetoric. It is about the alignment of leading and supporting all of your stakeholders so that you all have a clear understanding of the journey that you are all embarking upon. By being focused on being the best employer, supplier, community member, you will focus on the long-term gains of building an authentic brand that people recognise and, ultimately, believe in. The evidence continues to grow that businesses that pay attention to their purpose and long-term vision are the ones that drive performance and deliver returns to the shareholder.
Can brands that have never really embraced social responsibility do so now without being accused on jumping of the bandwagon? How so?
I’d challenge the question. All business exist to serve others. Any business that doesn’t, would go bust within the first year! Leadership teams need to pay considerable attention to assessing the impact they have on the world. To the planet. To employees. To customers. To investors. To suppliers. And importantly, to the local community.
The future-looking corporation not only assesses its impact but puts in clear plans of where improvements need to be made. This goes far beyond the normal ESG compliance often talked about and some words in the annual report; it means fully empowering the workforce to fully engage with the purpose and assess how they personally and collectively can improve all aspects of what they do.
Of course, cynicism exists for a reason: trust has to be earnt through real action. Living your purpose is a long-term commitment with a level of real ambition. Talking a big game with no actions or making donations to good causes barely scrapes the surface of what is required. In fact, this type of activity will damage the brand.
Working on purpose is an organisation wide initiative. Some of the work will be transformational. Most importantly, it should effortless and fun. We all want to get up in the morning and feel our work has some value to the world. Don’t we?