Simon Milton, founder of Pulse Brands and corporate branding specialist, suggests a future where the best of the ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’ worlds merge together as social businesses.
No matter what type of organisation you work for everybody seems to be talking about purpose and being purposeful. Purpose is the hot new mantra. Whether you work for a charity, NGO, government department or a commercial business everybody wants to believe their organisation has an important role in society.
Whether you are making ‘bean to bar’ chocolate or run a children’s charity, purpose beyond making a profit has to run through your very core.
Purpose is also driving our buying habit. No longer are we just accepting of where or how something is made. We even start to question how the product was transported to our supermarket shelves.
We no longer accept the idea that a late Christmas present will be delivered to our homes somewhere between 8.00am and 8.00pm at night. We can now digitally track down our purchases to virtually anywhere on the planet. The ill-informed call centre with no understanding of me, my needs or where my gift is, is no longer acceptable.
Everybody and everything is under the spotlight. During a period of global austerity government departments are being ruthlessly cut down to ensure they deliver value.
Even charities are now under the spotlight and are having to become more commercially accountable. The old adage ‘too big to fail’ often applied to larger charties no longer holds true. Kids Company in the UK is the latest example of a much needed charity that failed. Propped up by wealthy donors and the government for over a decade it had to close. From what we understand, an unhappy donor started asking questions about how her money was being used and this triggered the unravelling of an organisation lacking good corporate governance.
We are increasingly living in a world where the public is not particularly bothered by a company’s legal structure. Whether it is limited by shares, by guarantee or whether it is a community interest company limited by either shares or guarantee. All they want to know is that the company is acting responsibly.
I set up Pulse Brands 14 years ago with the belief that corporate brands were generally perceived to be more about spin and image than substance. At the same time, I also believed in the role of business in society but had little time for what I considered to be largely corporate social responsibility (CSR) spin. I believed and still believe that business has a critical role to help stimulate economic prosperity for all. All businesses, no matter their legal structure, need to be social businesses.
My very first job on leaving universtity 27 years ago involved consulting the Dow Chemical Company on its communications. At the time I was blissfully unaware that they previously manufactured Agent Orange used by the American army during the Vietnam war. My world was supporting those scientists and engineers developing different forms of advanced plastic for virtually any application you could think of. My second significant client was British Steel. It was at a time not so long ago when the UK had a steel industry and was one of the UK’s major CO2 emitters. In my communications role I was representing a once motivated and proud steel workforce helping to reduce the weight of the steel auto body or develop stronger, lighter and more fire resistant steel construction frames.
With these early years in brand consulting it became increasingly clear to me over time that business and industry had lost its confidence and voice. When under attack from the media or pressure groups, corporations responded with elaborate CSR initiatives to help enhance reputation. For me, the world still needed plastics and steel – particularly the emerging markets that had not benefited from any form of industrialisation.
Business and industry needed to continue focusing on its core offering and continue to look at ways to operate more responsibly – for the workforce, customer, supplier, investor, community and the planet that sustains us.
Again, no matter the legal structure, every organisation should ask why it exists and what would be lost if it did not.
Unfortunately we still live in two parallel universes. Those who work for a profit and everybody else. We spend too much time looking for differences rather than similarities.
In my role as a trustee of the Social Business Trust (SBT) I have had the privilege of seeing two very different worlds come together. Damon Buffini, widely considered one of the most influential people from the world of private equity and Adele Blakebrough MBE, a pioneer in the UK social enterprise sector, combined forces to create a charity that combines the resources of seven leading commercial organisations (Bain & Company, British Gas, Clifford Chance Credit Suisse, EY, Permira and Thomson Reuters) to help scale high-performing social enterprises.
We found that the issues and characteristics of thousands of UK social enterprises that struggle to scale are very similar to those holding back any small commercial enterprise. There are clearly a few differences but the similarities are far greater.
In order for social enterprises to scale nationally they, of course, need their pioneering and inspiring leaders but they also need the rigour and processes found within the commercial sector. This is even more true for a social enteprise that has limited access to banks to help fund growth.
Likewise, the lessons for the large commercial partners at SBT can be equally profound. They know too well that they have to continually evolve their organisations to remain relevant. And nothing helps you stay more relevant than spending time with social entrepreneurs on the ground, often serving the most needy in society.
My belief is that a purposeful brand motivates the leadership and workforce during the most gruelling of times. It’s the reason customers come back even when something might have gone wrong or a better deal can be made elsewhere. And the reason shareholders or funders are willing to give you space, time and funds to improve.
What is clear is that the importance of a purposeful brand is not going to go away. The more savvy consumer and employee demands it.