Built on purpose: Telling your company’s story

By Steve Fuller on Feb 19, 2015

Communicating the reason your company is in business – other than to turn a profit – can transform the fortunes of your brand;  While the rest of retail banking world has been struggling, Triodos Bank has seen the number of its customer accounts grow 144% in the last four years. The success of the Dutch bank is based on convincing disaffected customers that Triodos offers a real alternative to the mainstream banks: a clear and credible commitment to making a positive impact in the world. When your story is as appealing as the one Triodos can tell, it’s pretty obvious that communicating it is going to be good for business. But the same holds true even for brands with less obvious ethical credentials.

Lifebuoy soap is not just another commonplace, fast-moving-consumer-goods brand in the Unilever portfolio. Instead, it has a purpose beyond that: it’s a product that improves hygiene, reduces the spread of disease and, ultimately, can save lives.That’s the message communicated in its Help a Child Reach 5 initiative, which has taught healthy hand-washing habits to 130 million people in the developing world and helped the brand achieve new levels of global awareness while registering impressive sales growth.

The power of purpose; Corporate purpose is the reason you are in business other than to make money. It’s a statement about the company’s contribution to society – not what it makes, but what it makes happen. It certainly isn’t a nod to some bolt-on philanthropic efforts or to the environmental management system it operates. Instead, it’s about how the company’s core business benefits people and the planet.

And it’s an idea whose time has come. Widespread mistrust of big business has created an opportunity for those that trade ethically and sustainably. Seminal books such as Jim Stengel’s Grow and Beer et al’s Higher Ambition spell out how progressive companies of all sizes are growing by figuring out – and then conveying – how they can create economic and social value. The subsequent success they enjoy allows them to do even more to pursue their purpose – the classic virtuous circle. Knowing your purpose brings manifold benefits. It breeds confidence internally and attracts external investment, according to Deloitte’s 2014 Culture of Purpose survey. It can also be a catalyst for product and service innovations. And it underpins strong cultures. A whopping 94% of the Triodos staff, for example, say they are proud to work for the bank. All in all, the future belongs to companies with a purpose.

Know your business purpose; Before a company can start communicating its purpose, it needs to know what it is. That’s not always a given. The UK local business directory thebestof demonstrates how discovering a purpose can transform business fortunes. We helped the company and its franchisee network recognise and communicate their role as champions of locally recommended businesses. This was the catalyst for turning an under-performing web directory selling advertising space into the market leader. Sometimes, as an organisation matures, it loses sight of its original raison d’être. In this case, identifying a purpose is often a matter of re-discovering the DNA of the business. This is something that happened in our work with gardening brand Sankey. Over time, they had come to see themselves as a “plastics manufacturer,” not a gardening company, and had reached a point where products were developed primarily to suit the machines and transport system rather than the gardening community. We helped the top team remember what their brand was all about – in part by blowing the dust off some of their archived advertising materials from a time when they had a Royal Warrant of Appointment for their garden pots. This reignited a passion for gardening inside the business, and Sankey remodelled everything from product development through to marketing to meet the needs of UK gardeners.

Experiment with storytelling techniques

Once purpose is defined, the real gains come from communicating it effectively to customers, investors, employees and all other stakeholders. So, how to go about it? There’s a danger that purpose can be seen by some as dull and worthy. It has to be brought to life inside the organisation and then beyond. The best way to do this is to tell a compelling story. Dig into the relatively small set of narrative structures that have underpinned mankind’s stories over the aeons. The best ofs cautionary tale ‘The boy who cried “best”’, for example helped franchisees and employees understand what the organisation was all about. Whatever story you end up with, you’ll need a range of tools for telling it. Influenced no doubt by the early career success we enjoyed helping build major drinks and lifestyle brands, we often advocate film. Lifebuoy’s Help a Child Reach 5 video, for instance, captures hearts and minds. In under two years, it has chalked up 20 million YouTube views.

Engage for success

Lifebuoy’s communication of its purpose extends well beyond being a conventional ad campaign. Instead, it has become a genuine movement with all kinds of offshoot projects. In seeking to communicate purpose, there’s much we can learn from third-sector movements such as Comic Relief and Children in Need. Not content with just asking for donations through mass-media appeals to people’s generosity, they get thousands engaged in fundraising activities. Another major purpose-driven corporate movement includes Innocent’s Big Knit, which has seen 4 million woolly hats knitted across the UK and more than £1.5m raised for Age UK. The secret is to make everything positively infectious, and then the sharing comes naturally. Purpose is feel good – employees, suppliers and customers want to be associated with work that is rewarding and uplifting.


Work from the inside out

Remember that purpose is not something you do to people. Whatever methods you develop, co-author with the team. Don’t slap it up on the wall; instead, create it and live it. Get members of the team from top to bottom to tell the rest of the business what it means to work for a purposeful company. Develop ambassadors at every level to carry the story to shopfloor, social media, even the pub. Social landlord Curo is a good example. They have rebranded their whole operation – from offices to van fleet – to convey their purpose. Every Curo employee has had training on the organisation’s purpose and their role in making it happen. Of course, none of this is risk-free. Identifying and then stating your purpose is a brave move – it means you are there to be shot at. But it also makes it possible to transform an organisation through a clear direction, focused leadership and a vibrant, positive culture. Ultimately, it paves the way for sustainable success.

Steve Fuller is the creative head of UK-based brand agency The House. He helps companies discover a purpose that is good for society and then put it into action to achieve sustainable growth. Read more about it at www.thehouse.co.uk or follow @thehouse_bath.


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