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Brands are the campfire of the company

21 Feb 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
Brands are the campfire of the company

The wrong-headed belief that it is the brand, not the company, that must be ‘purposeful’ is leading to some very odd advertising, writes Jan Gooding

It was a gloomy end to January to learn that the Edelman Trust Barometer paints a bleak picture of a nation divided and uneasy. At the same time, we learn from the Advertising Association thinktank Credos that trust in advertising is in long term decline and has reached an all-time low.

Most fascinating from Edelman was the reported shift in people’s trust towards relationships within their control, most notably their employer. And it isn’t surprising, therefore, to find that CEOs are expected to lead the change, because 68% of people believe that companies can both improve society and do well.

What I find bizarre against this context, is that there is a serious view being bandied about that people would look to ‘purposeful brands’ as the guiding lights leading us to the desired change.

Seriously? To believe that would mean believing that brands can in themselves be change-makers, as opposed to the meaningful work being done within organisations.

Brands have a role, but they are not the main event

The power of a brand comes when it is able to bundle up the attributes and values of products in a way that provides a compelling benefit to its customers. Its role is purely commercial. Brands cannot change the world. But clearly, purposeful CEO’s and companies can.

The wrong-headed belief that it is the brand, not the company, that must be ‘purposeful’ is leading to some very odd advertising.

A brand is what a brand does. And the ‘doing’ comes from the company ethos.

So why aren’t companies doing more to change the world already? People clearly long for them, rather than governments, to do something radical.

Let us remind ourselves of Milton Friedman’s blunt statement in 1970 that the purpose of a business is to make money for the people who own it, not to advance some social, environmental, religious or other agenda.

His assertion was that the only social purpose of business is to make a profit. The influential financial professions still tend to lean heavily in this direction.

Beware the idea that trust is regained simply by finding the right message

I remember attending a City UK meeting after the 2008 financial crash. At the time, the City of London were rightly worried about their reputation and the chasm of mistrust between financial institutions and the general public.

There were those at Aviva (an insurance company) who joked about printing T-shirts that read ‘We are not a bank!’ as probably their most compelling point of differentiation.

Research was done, and various messages tested, to see what the pathway back to trust was. One of them proclaimed ‘The City of London pays £3 billion in taxes, enough to pay for all our NHS nurses’. The astonishing response from respondents across the country was ‘let’s do without the nurses then’.

The UK has a big productivity problem. And without ‘skin in the game’, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that the people who work in companies are not particularly motivated by profit alone.

Companies are rightly pre-occupied with the nature of the workforce in the future. Harnessing the positive opportunities offered by technology, enabling smart working which is flexible and encourages inclusive cultures, and reinventing reward models are all important topics. It is well understood that discretionary effort will come from doing meaningful work.

People want companies to take responsibility for their impact

There is indeed an increasingly important relationship between the behind-the-scenes reality of a company and its reputation. The way it goes about its business, including the treatment of the people working there, will inevitably play out in perceptions of their brands.

That's why it is so important that ideas about company purpose and values don’t just live in the advertising, before they are the reality within the corporation.

It is companies with a purpose beyond simply making a profit, with well-defined company values, that will be committed to building a better society and the common good. "

Responsibility for defining the purpose and values of the company (as opposed to the brand) and driving it into the culture of the people who work there, tends to sit with HR. Not the finance function, nor the marketing department.

It may seem obvious, but it is because the company purpose is there to motivate its staff inside the firm, not its customers in the outside world.

Sincerely held company purpose and belief systems leads to distinctive brands

Brand communication undoubtedly attracts employees and investors, as well as customers, by providing a simple shorthand for society to judge the companies that sit behind them. But they are the outcome, not the starting point.

The important positions taken by the likes of Unilever and P&G around sustainability and avoiding damaging stereotyping are only just filtering through to their brands.

Brands need to be modest and accept that their credentials and values are the outcome of a company with a purpose and culture to match. They are not the vehicle to lead anything. Or they risk being uncovered as disconnected from reality in an increasingly transparent and unforgiving world.

Unless the CEO is committed to culture change, it won’t happen

Soon after he arrived at Aviva as CEO in 2012, Mark Wilson personally addressed the issue of revisiting the company purpose and values.

It was a big effort, with repeated rounds of consultation and immersion sessions with senior management and colleagues, after which we not only agreed what we wanted those values to be, but retained the Agora style rooms that had been constructed to debate them in.

Aviva’s purpose was eventually described as ‘to free people from fear of uncertainty’ and the four memorable values were:

Care More: ‘we care like crazy about our customers, our communities and each other’

Kill Complexity: ‘we are obsessed with making things simpler for our customers and each other'

Never Rest: ‘we are driven to think bigger and do better for our customers and each other'

Create Legacy: ‘we strive to create a sustainable future for our customers and each other'

These values provided the campfire for the company, around which the company gathered. But they were not intended for communication or use outside the company.

The role of the brand was to convert these lived values into a benefit for its customers, through proposition and service enhancements, and the way we used our influence in the world.

Marketing people need to worry less about the share price, and more about the people strategy

If marketing people want their brands to be credible in their expression of profitable usefulness to society and the world, they would do well to work a bit more closely with the HR professionals on corporate culture - and spend a little less time worrying about finance and procurement people who are focussed obsessively on cost and margin.

It is companies with a purpose beyond simply making a profit, with well-defined company values, that will be committed to building a better society and the common good.

Brands will embody and reflect that, not lead it.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall and the president of the Market Research Society. She writes for Mediatel each month.


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kellipeterson, founder/managing director, the change project on 22 Feb 2019
“The brand is the shining face and culture driving the messaging and commitment to productivity. The two - company and brand - are really inextricable. It is true that the advertising cannot lead the change, but the brand backbone, the "how" company gets things done and chooses to conduct itself - does create the change. It's nuance indeed.
DraytonBird, Founder, Drayton Bird Associates on 21 Feb 2019
“"The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other function worth mentioning" - Raymond Rubicam. It is through selling better products that brands are built. The rest is fluff, designed to help people escape from that rather challenging task.”


22 May 2020 

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