Comms Club: The Big Issues – Can companies communicate both purpose and profit?

Unilever’s top shareholder Terry Smith kicked 2022 off with a scathing attack on the organisation’s strategy to prioritise purpose above all else. 

His comments were highly critical of the commitment to sustainability and he said: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has … clearly lost the plot.”

Propeller Group’s virtual event Comms Club: The Big Issues discussed how brands can take a credible position on delivering both profit and purpose. The session featured industry leaders Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at Dentsu Global and Julian McBride, Global Media Relations and Communications at Accenture Interactive and was chaired by Mary Ciricione, US VIce President at Propeller Group. 

Consumer expectations are continuing to change and brands need to adapt to the new landscape. Lungley said: “People are no longer passive consumers – they are activists. Two-thirds of consumers will choose, switch or boycott a brand based on their stand on societal issues.” 

How to enter the conversation

Sustainability, diversity, inclusion – these are some of the key societal issues that brands have sought to align with in a meaningful way. 

McBride argued that before brands prioritise owning a stance that balances both purpose and profit they need to reflect deeply on how credible their position might be perceived: “What is your currency in the conversation? What is your relevance – and is a stance warranted? You have to pause and evaluate your role in the topic.” 

Lungley spoke about the need for total transparency: She pointed out that social media can be complex. It can cause brands to get carried away with the crowd, for instance look at the many unrealistic Net Zero pledges made by businesses. 

She added that in an information era where consumers can conduct in-depth research on an organisation at the click of the button brands “need to be authentic.” 

Speaking out on a topic that your brand has a vested interest in is perfectly understandable. But empty statements are unacceptable – words have consequences and should be followed up with meaningful actions. 

Tailoring your message

Cirincione asked the panel about how to broach the subject of purpose with the boardroom: “We know that purpose matters to consumers – and we know that businesses can’t sacrifice profit for purpose or vice versa. The question is – how to communicate this up as well as out?”

Lungley argued that communications professionals need to tailor the message to the audience. She gave examples: “If you’re speaking to a CFO or fund manager, you need to have statistics at your fingertips – make the business case.” 

McBride spoke about investing time and effort into developing an understanding of the target audience: “As communications professionals, we should be tailoring, translating and coding how we speak to certain audiences. Lean into universal human truths – everyone wants safety, love, compassion – and to be listened to.” 

Brands have to remember that although they’re speaking to culturally diverse audiences they are all people at the end of the day. These ‘universal human truths’ should be used within all major statements to resonate with audiences and provide some much-needed relatability. 

Speed isn’t always the answer

The conversation looked at speed of response in the wake of a tragic incident or injustice. Cirincione said: “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there was a sense of urgency – from organisations of all shapes and sizes – to push out statements. But consumers pointed out that many of these were hollow.” 

Lungley’s advice was to be patient when responding to this type of flashpoint: “Companies need to respond with empathy. In a crisis, I encourage organisations to pause and reflect before issuing statements – this ensures authenticity.” 

McBride’s vision for the ‘ideal’ approach was to look inwards before rushing into a situation: “Hold a mirror to your organisation before entering a conversation. How has your company been progressive with support programmes in the past?”

Final words of wisdom

Lungley rounded off with three pieces of advice. 

  1. Communicate where you can show leadership and drive change.
  2. Communicate the solutions you possess. There may be organisations that don’t have the same resources – this is a time to collaborate, not compete.
  3. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t have all the answers. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when trying to develop solutions.

Communications does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. But profit and purpose should not be pitted against one another – they must be able to coexist. 

This requires trial-and-error tactics. Brands may not get things right on the first attempt – the key is to learn from mistakes and focus on making progress. 

Statements need to be meaningful – they have to cut through the cacophony of chatter and noise. McBride’s solution was for brands to look inwards: “What is your desired outcome? Establish whether you are entering a conversation to support your employees, or to share in the spotlight. In a time when the news cycle only lasts for two minutes – it is OK to pause.” 

Key takeaways: 

  • Be mindful of changing consumer behaviours and expectations – younger demographics are looking to brands to ‘do the right thing’ and will turn away if they don’t
  • Identify the talking points that board members respond to so you can engineer a positive conversation around profit and purpose 
  • Learn to pick the right moment to the brand to speak – immediate responses don’t always offer positive rewards
  • Understand the power of the Internet – social media has drastically shifted the way information is shared
  • Be your own best case study – look at areas that you have performed historically well in, and identify purposeful programmes you can credibly own

To read the key takeaways from other Comms Club: The Big Issues sessions click the below links:
Getting boardroom buy-in for PR pushes
Leadership life stories: How to craft a compelling narrative for your company
Keeping calm and carrying on in a comms crisis

You can watch the full panel by clicking here.