Brands sure are driven by a broader mission that rises above mere surface-level services
By Mitu Samar
From conglomerates to startups, all have come forward in the last few days to bridge the much-talked-about gap in the supply of oxygen, cylinders and concentrators, as India is struggling to cope with the new variants of Covid-19. It is heartening to see how India Inc., including MNCs, have risen to the occasion and have supported the cause. While we are lauding these efforts, it makes me wonder how corporate India can make these so-called sustainability initiatives more sustainable.
Brands sure are driven by a broader mission that rises above mere surface-level services. But ideals of sustainability are often at odds with economic realities. Even large organisations have to cater to shareholders for whom bottom-line results matter more than purpose. ‘Sure enough go green, but let my wallet not feel the pinch.’
On the other hand, millennials and Gen Zers are increasingly influenced by minimalism and hence are keen to associate with purpose-led companies as a buyer or even as an employee. These two developments are driving more sustained conscious business practices, yet we do have some distance to cover.
That’s largely because corporates worldwide are not able to align profits and purpose meaningfully. The balance shifts one way or the other.
Remember the recent case of Danone?
A child absorbed in star gazing, the logo of the company, makes for a lovely image. Couple that with ‘One Planet. One health’: the tagline. But a picture that tugs at our heartstrings doesn’t necessarily correspond to ground realities. The company’s CEO Emmanuel Faber had to step down following shareholders’ calls for his ouster. Faber was perceived to be too focused on values of sustainability and social responsibility rather than driving the business that generated revenues or profits. That Danone’s competitors, Unilever and Nestlé, were consistently delivering better performance and valuations made Faber’s position untenable in the eyes of a certain section of investors.
Large corporations sure are driven by a larger purpose — but in this case, it was held that Faber couldn’t strike a balance between commitment to the environment and shareholder value creation. ‘Purpose’ seemed heavier on the weighing scale than ‘profit’.
It’s a conflict not easily resolved as Faber, who paid the price with his job, may have realised.
Closer home, UltraTech Cement scores well on both counts. Known for strength and durability, UltraTech has been ranked among the top 10 companies internationally on Dow Jones Sustainability Indices in the construction material industry. Given that the cement industry is carbon-intensive, this development speaks volumes of its practices and commitment. While doing so it has continued to fare well on the financial parameters too. A market share of over 30% reflects the bond it shares with customers.
Merely doing the right thing alone might not suffice. The theme that purpose and profits are not polar opposites — it’s not one or the other — must be reinforced at every stage of a brand journey.
How can this be achieved?
Make stakeholders part of this journey
Most organisations choose common themes like plantation, donation, or literacy programmes as sustainability initiatives. These appear more like a tick-in-the-box exercise rather than a deep involvement with the people who matter. Instead, companies should engage with stakeholders, especially employees, customers and investors to understand the causes that align with their deeply-held beliefs.
Once the stakeholders’ values are identified, organisations could integrate them with their own virtues, thereby driving the purpose. For instance, most banks consider financial inclusion – offering banking and financial services to every individual without discrimination – as their purpose but how many of them have it truly integrated with their daily business practices?
Define the purpose and communicate actively
As they say, a lot gets lost in translation. Companies need to specifically define the purpose, communicate it effectively to all stakeholders and follow it up with masterful execution. Purpose should not be a feel-good note hung on office walls or tucked in an employee handbook but it should be part of everything a company does on a daily basis.
Extending the bank example, merely having a bank account is not financial inclusion. Savings, investments and insurance are also critical components of the same. Are employees walking the talk and have thought of their own financial profile? Similarly, are customers informed enough to make meaningful financial decisions? These are fine things that eventually make a lasting impact.
A well-articulated purpose that is communicated clearly and regularly makes the efforts effective. What’s more, it drives business too! When a customer’s association with a bank goes beyond having a basic account, it automatically drives the business and achieves the desired quality.
Amplify what you do
Often we believe our good work will get its due and be noticed. But seldom do we realise that everyone is too busy in life to notice us. Hence the story must be told and amplified. Thanks to the paid, earned and owned media of communication, amplification can be executed at varied scales repeatedly so that the association of purpose and the brand becomes natural.
What’s our takeaway then? Purpose has proven virtues. It drives reputation and inspires long-term loyalty. Profits are bound to follow. The nuance lies in bringing stakeholders together, identifying and articulating the purpose without losing sight of business implications. Amplifying it effectively ensures ambiguity gives way to transparency and trust resulting in a long-term affiliation.
The author is CEO, Eminence, a strategy consulting company focused on reputation