How do you feel about same-sex marriage, climate change, or immigration? Companies have traditionally been wary of taking a position on such ...

5 steps to communicating your purpose

How do you feel about same-sex marriage, climate change, or immigration? Companies have traditionally been wary of taking a position on such social and political issues. But things are changing now. Gone are the days when customers only bought what you were selling. Now, they’re buying what you believe in.  

Last week, Caitriona O’Connor, Global Social Media Manager at Skanska, spoke about the importance of purpose-driven storytelling. She challenged traditional views on business, encouraging companies to take position in matters that affect employees, customers, and the business as a whole.

And the research backs it up. A recent Global Strategy Group study shows that 81 percent of Americans believe that corporations should take action to address important issues facing society. 88 percent believe corporations have the power to influence social change.

Furthermore, 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 75 percent of people believe that a company can take specific actions that both increase profit and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.

But this era of activism poses new challenges for brands. With the recent missteps of Pepsi and Uber, it’s understandable why many brands stay quiet. Besides, trust in businesses is at an all-time low.

To guide your efforts, here are five steps to communicating your purpose. They draw on Caitriona O’Connor’s insights, which she shared during last week’s breakfast seminar.

1. Know your audience

Success comes from knowing your audience well. Where is the sweet spot between what your business stands for and what your customers care about? The issues must be relevant to both the business and the customers.

Take Patagonia as an example. They have stood up for environmental causes since the company was formed. So when Donald Trump threatened to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah last year, the company released a campaign to defend public land. Customers welcomed Patagonia’s response.

Patagonia’s position on the environment works because the company has been relevant and consistent with their messaging for the past 30 years. The audience knows what to expect from them.       

2. Keep it real

The purpose has to be anchored in the organisation, and expressed by those who work there. It’s the people who bring the mission to life.

Portray the real-life work of your employees. Have the courage to stay radically transparent and be consistent with your values. Sure, this may indeed expose more cases of bad behaviour, but at least it will show you areas of improvement.

Taking a stand on an issue must lead to action in the real world, an actual difference that can be felt, seen, and heard. Simple lip-service and cosmetic campaigns won’t work in the long-run. Your audience will see right through it. Instead, tell stories from the real world. They are more credible and powerful.

3. Move from what to why

Most companies are good at communicating what they do, but few brands successfully communicate why they do it.

The problem with ‘what’ is obvious. The competition is fierce and there are many brands offering similar products and services. Why you do it helps to differentiate your brand. It can be a certain philosophy or a unique approach that separates you from the rest. Further, it’s more difficult to copy a company’s ‘why’.

Brands are currently making a transformation from communicating their ‘what’ to communicating their purpose (see e.g. Skanska and Gant). Many successful brands already know that a well-articulated purpose helps to attract and retain talent, partners, investors and customers. How about you, are you moving from what to why?

4. Take position on issues of our time

Whether you like it or not, companies are encouraged to take position on issues. Some do it well, others are still learning.

As an antidote to the Pepsi ad, Heineken’s social-experiment-turned-TV-commercial “Worlds Apart” brings strangers together with completely opposing views on hot topics of today (i.e. transgender, climate change and feminism). They complete a series of DIY tasks, without knowing about the other person’s views. These opposing views are later revealed and the participants are asked to either discuss it over a beer or leave. See what happens:

Unlike the Pepsi ad, Heineken didn’t position their product as the solution to these problems. What Heineken managed to do so successfully was to enable a discussion about these topics.  Another important factor contributing to the success of the campaign was the production itself. The reality-TV vibe made the situation more relatable to viewers and added authenticity and credibility.

5. Make sure the evidence is there

Purpose can get political and difficult to balance when your community is diverse. It’s easy to overcommunicate your cause, which is why there must be solid evidence for why the company decides to take a position on an issue.

It needs to be relevant for the key audiences (see Step 1), and well-established in the organisation (see Step 2). As an example, Skanska took a position in the housing issue in Sweden. The difficulty of finding a place to stay prevents every fifth person in their job and student careers, a stance which is relevant to both Skanska and their stakeholders.

Without any evidence to back up the position, the attempts become cosmetic and futile.

We have a unique position as communicators

One of the things I take with me from Caitriona’s talk is the responsibility we have as communicators to shape the discourse. We’re in a unique position to affect conversations and influence people’s actions.

Consumers demand more and buy based on shared beliefs. Marketers must thus have the courage to be radically transparent, consistent, and relevant. To clearly articulate and communicate the brand’s purpose.

It’s a challenge, for sure. Are you up for it?

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