Can We Really Measure Purpose?

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Many senior people in business are making the right noises about altruistic practices, but we need to go further than that. Vijay Solanki explains why developing a standard measurement for purpose will help encourage more brands to really walk the walk. 

I grew up in a town in the UK which was famous for its chocolate factories. In the town of York, Cravens made boiled sweets, Terrys made its famous Chocolate Orange and Rowntrees was revered for Kit Kat, amongst many others.

These days Rowntrees is rarely mentioned but the Kit Kat brand lives on. As a student, I was lucky enough to land a Summer job in the archives of Rowntrees Chocolate factory. Working there was like being in an Aladdin’s cave of chocolate packaging and advertising, but it is the history of the business that was most poignant.

Rowntrees was founded by Joseph Rowntree, an English Quaker philanthropist and businessman from York in 1862. He was a champion of social reform. As a powerful businessman, he was deeply interested in the improving the quality of life of his employees; this led him to pursuing many charitable causes. The most interesting was a Social Services Trust that focused on social and political activity.

William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, which then evolved into Unilever, was also passionate about looking after his employees and their environment.

So, the notion of entrepreneurs and leaders of big business doing good is far from new. The fundamental change is the shift from altruism to a critical need for the planet to get its act together before it is too late.

Bill and Melinda Gates took to social enterprises after their corporate roles through their foundation and via their link to the UN 17 Sustainable Goals. This is major and high profile. It also covers off every serious issue the planet is facing.

Charities, governments, social enterprises and a growing number of entrepreneurs are playing a part. But will that be enough? Many think not. Encouragingly, more and more leaders of large organisations have realised that the corporate world has its part to play, if the planet is to avert catastrophe.

The notion of doing good has always been a part of the Unilever ethos. When you work there in the UK, you get to visit Port Sunlight, which is the original site of the soap factory. You see the housing that Viscount Leverhulme built for his employees and other examples of his altruism. The positive change that a corporate can deliver is also much more powerful in the current day.

A former colleague of mine worked for Unilever in India. He used the Lifebuoy soap brand to tackle child mortality caused by diarrhoea and pneumonia. I remember the story of an advertising campaign with a song at its core and lyrics all aimed at getting kids to rub their hands together five times as they washed. The scientific research showed that a thorough clean of hands saved lives. Quite literally. One program showed a reduction in diarrhoea from 36% to 6%. Lifebuoy also partnered with Global Handwashing Day back in 2008.

Unilever has become the poster child in purpose-led corporate business. Just a few weeks back at Cannes Lions, the newly anointed Unilever CEO Alan Jope proudly announced:

“We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny or your skin soft, your clothes white or your food tastier.”

As a marketer, this is an interesting step beyond functional benefit but also traditional emotional benefits in brand positioning. Historically, many Unilever brands promised shiny hair that delivered ‘inner confidence’ or whiter clothes made you feel like ‘a better parent’. This new approach from the top is telling us that to be a good product and making consumers feel good about their purchase is simply not enough.

Cynics might say remarks like this are mere box checking by a socially astute CEO. I think it is an important acknowledgment, but it’s still not enough. What’s become clear in a world of fuzzy politics, where most of society does not show signs of altruism, is that we have to put the issue of doing good on the motorway of capitalism.

That means brands and marketers have their part to play. Particularly because brands owned by Unilever or Adidas, for example, have much more resonance than charities, politicians and social enterprise for a big chunk of society.

The corporates that own the biggest brands in the world can’t just simply point them all at ‘doing good’. Most of these companies are listed and have shareholders and major financial institutions to satisfy. No, to create real change, the organisations within the ecosystem also need to be part of the journey.

So how do you do that?

It’s all about the measurement. You need to be able to demonstrate that doing good correlates with doing well. And yes, there are plenty of industry level studies showing companies that do good, deliver better returns.

I found this example from NYU Stern School for Sustainable Business.

These studies can be useful, but they often raise two questions. The cynics feel like they are produced by lobby organisations designed to create these types of numbers. Secondly, people looking at generalist numbers may arrive at the conclusion that they don’t relate to ‘my’ business.

This means that CEOs and CFOs need to see a link between purpose and their own business, or at least their own category.

The question we need to answer to satisfy them is: What’s the ROI of purpose?

I’ve been working with two former Unilever colleagues – one ran a global division, and another was a global VP of brand – and they’ve created a methodology for measuring purpose or ‘doing good’ with consumers. This metric is like a purpose equivalent of a Net Promoter Score (NPS). It allows you to start a connection between purpose and commercial outcomes by correlating purpose measure with NPS.

This comes down to doing two things well and not just jumping on a purpose bandwagon. One is to get your purpose-based positioning right and the other is to measure your purpose against your key competitors. Then you can start to drive purpose to the heart of your business and to take all the right people on that journey.

I leave you with a quote from former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, who has just set up a foundation for meeting global goals for sustainable development, called Imagine: “Even a company like Unilever can only do so much. We have a fight against the clock here.”

Vijay Solanki is Chief Consultant at The B’old Intern (& a former Unilever marketer). He is speaking at Advertising Week APAC 2019 on You can’t change Capitalism Until You Can Measure Purpose, at 4.35pm on Wednesday, July 31 on the Think TV Stage.

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