Building compassionate brands

Building compassionate brands

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In a recent address at Cannes, Monica Lewinsky made a plea for brands to play a more direct role in building a compassionate society: one where the power of social media to generate shame and humiliation (and gain money by doing so) was eschewed in favour of an environment that collectively supported and inspired individuals and their actions.

“Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths,” said Lewinsky. “People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.”

“People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.”

It’s a nice idea and not a new one. As I recall, Scott Bedbury talked about it in his book “A New Brand World” almost 15 years ago. Part of the difficulty it seems to me is that, like all terms, compassion means different things to different people. Compassion may be defined in terms like care, kindness and humanity, but those principles can be expressed in very different ways and through many and varied actions. Many would see compassion as it pertains to commerce as being ethically focused: issues like traceability, supply chain ethics, environmental impact and the like. Others may see compassion more in terms of community involvement – and therefore corporate philanthropy, sponsorship or grass-roots support. Lewinsky’s specific focus in her address was the need for brands to behave and endorse responsibly on social media.

Purpose and ambition in the pursuit of compassion

So how do you build a compassionate brand and what role should a brand set for itself in so doing?

It’s at this point that I draw a distinction between purpose and ambition. Purpose, I believe, is about the greatest goal you have for your business and for your employees. Ambition focuses on the global impact you will have as a brand, or a collection of brands, and why you have chosen to make it your business to pursue such a goal. It’s about using your place in the world to change the world and therefore to embrace or address the ‘universal’ issues that affect your brands.

There may be brands that set themselves the goal of having a compassionate culture. But Lewinsky’s plea is for something bigger still – an intervention by brands in the way things are done to make the world a more compassionate place. One could well argue that a compassionate culture is a pre-requisite to the pursuit of a compassionate business and a compassionate world, but these are also potentially separate initiatives.

Return on compassion – the new ROC?

Some will argue that such goals are not the role of business at all. But in a recent article in WARC, Unilever CEO Paul Polan is quoted as saying that brands that respond sensitively and proactively at a macro level to the changes of a volatile world are in fact delivering stronger and faster growth for their investors – so the business case is not just about increasing consumer empathy through being “compassionate in return”, to quote Lewinsky, it’s actually about being compassionate for return as well. The opportunity, as brands like Patagonia have shown, is that consumers respond well to opinion leaders who they see as taking initiatives in areas that feel too big for them as individuals.

The key question for brands looking to sincerely differentiate themselves through their intentions is to ask: Where are we in a position to make the greatest difference? Part of the problem is that brands have not approached their ability to deliver positive impact with enough discipline. The focus historically has been on how much is being done rather than how well it is being done and the difference it is actually delivering.

Unilever addressed that by recognising that it had two critical impact points: its supply chain, through the sheer weight of materials and resources that it oversaw; and the household, through its presence across the world. With Project Sunlight, it set out to address both – and to tie endorsement of those actions back to purchase of its products.

A call for kindness

Compassion would work as an ambition because it brings humanity and individual relevance to the impossibly huge. It’s a potentially powerful approach in sectors where people are important and real care is missing. And it makes for an absorbing challenge doesn’t it? – how to build, develop, lead and grow a business that is globally competitive and yet distinguishable by its empathy and humanity. It’s challenging I think because we continue to confuse competition with aggression and gentleness with weakness. Marketers are actually afraid of developing brands that are as real and as sensitive as consumers would like them to be. And yet Unilever has shown that those who are prepared to pursue business practices that acknowledge humanity (and even vulnerability) are so much more interesting to those who buy.

If Lewinsky’s call excites you – and I happen to find it a very exciting call – here’s a simple question for the next time you’re in a strategy session working through how to differentiate your brand from the myriad of look-alikes and price-cutters that surround you: How, when and where could we be kinder – to ourselves (culture), for our business and our consumers (purpose) and in the world (ambition) – and what differences could that make for all of us?

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