These 5 Deadly Sins Of Brand Purpose Can Kill Employee Morale
Brand purpose has become almost a universal pursuit for marketers. Younger consumers in particular (Millennials, Gen Z) express a desire to purchase from brands whose values mirror their own. There’s also a growing expectation for brands to play a role in addressing the many challenges facing society , as consumers trust in government drops.
No surprise, then, that there’s been a rush to adopt various forms of purpose, values and causes by brands hungry for relevance and social bona fides. For many, the efforts have generated positive results: kudos for inspiring creative work, gratitude for shining a light on important issues, lift in brand equities and maybe even some impact on sales.
But it doesn’t always go so well.
When purpose efforts go bad, it can take the form of a mild and recoverable misstep, such as Dove’s online addepicting an African-American woman pulling off a brown shirt to reveal a white woman beneath. When purpose goes really wrong it can also result in more egregious fouls such as the much-lambasted Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad, wherein the C-lister miraculously turned the tides of an urban riot with the pop of a soda can.
Whether a mild hiccup or an enduring ailment, these purpose fails are generally examined from the perspective of the effects on the public brand from the fallout in social and other media. Our measures of damage and recovery tend to be in terms of brand equities, consumer favorability and purchase intent. But one area that hasn’t gotten as much attention around the risks of poorly executed brand purpose is the internal effect on the employee base.
That’s why Kin&Co, a specialist purpose and values consultancy, took a deep dive on the connection between brand purpose and employee culture with research among 1,000 UK workers in January of 2018. The UK shares many of the same dynamics as the US as consumers have lost trust in government to fix society’s issues, and increasingly look to companies and their brands to take up the slack and make a difference. Kin&Co CEO Rosie Warin said the impetus for the research came as she watched the progress of organizations rising to the challenge and embracing social purpose: “Companies are f**king it up.”
Hence the name of their report: How to Avoid F**king Up Purpose.
“Companies are coming up with a purpose statement in the boardroom, or picking up something from their agency, and then going straight to marketing and shouting it from the rooftops and using it to try and drive sales,” Warin said. The resulting problems go beyond the external brand blowback: “Internally, employees see the purpose in the ads but they know it’s BS because they don’t see those values represented in the culture,” she said.
The effects of the purpose-culture disconnect can drive even more enduring damage than any effect on the external brand. As employees view what they consider corporate hypocrisy, the result is a disengagement crisis, which showed up in the Kin&Co research. Almost half of those surveyed said that their employer’s actions did match their espoused values. The impacts are sobering: 68% of respondents said that not walking the walk as a company negatively affects their work, their trust in leaders and their loyalty. Close to half claimed it made them want to leave the company.
As you ponder your current or future efforts at wrapping a broader purpose around your brand, keep a watch out for these purpose fails that Warin says are most common and damaging:
1. Boardroom copywriting. “This one is the worst—I can’t stress how damaging it is,” Warin cautioned. Sure, you want and need the leadership to be passionately aligned with your chosen values and purpose. Sounding out the top brass is certainly an important step to ensure authenticity and consistency. But don’t do it in a vacuum and don’t make that the first and last stop on your purpose train.
2. Cram down from the top. A critical part of a successful purpose transformation is appropriately engaging and empowering the employee base in its formation. Failing to appropriately tap into the energy and existing culture of the employees will virtually guarantee problems down the road in adoption and execution.
3. “Marketing’s got it.” Marketing must certainly play a vital role, treating the internal work with the same attention to insights and communication as any external campaign. But the real impetus needs to come from the CEO, and the team needs cross-functional representation across the enterprise to drive a successful outcome.
4. “Do as I say, not as I do.” The most obvious proof of sincere commitment to values and purpose is when a company makes a painful decision on the altar of that purpose—foregoing revenue, firing customers, adding cost, standing firm in the face of external pressure. Warin cites Airbnb as an example for cutting ties with hosts and guests who were known to express racist views. Defaulting to profit and business-as-usual over purpose is visible and compelling evidence of insincerity.
5. Roll-out as usual. Walking the purpose walk is about behavior change and calls for a thoughtful approach to rolling the program out and instilling it deeply in the organization’s psyche. This requires a multi-touch effort infused with an appreciation for behavioral psychology. Treating the program with the same care and effort as cascading the new corporate intranet will lead to disaster.
Don’t let the risk of epic purpose fails dissuade you from wading in. Done right, you’ll strengthen your brand, inspire your employees and maybe even do some good in the world. And let’s face it—the world could use your help.
Marketing strategies to help your team get inspired to make bold moves. Join me.