The PR Show podcast on purpose: 'It's OK to fail - brands just need to grow a pair'

Businesses can no longer afford to ignore sustainable practices and should embrace social purpose or risk a backlash from consumers and shareholders. That's the key message of a special purpose marketing episode of PRWeek's podcast The PR Show.

The panel: Freuds' Lotte Jones, leading sustainability expert Sue Garrard, Blurred's Nik Govier
The panel: Freuds' Lotte Jones, leading sustainability expert Sue Garrard, Blurred's Nik Govier

Global sustainability expert and newly inducted PRWeek Hall of Famer Sue Garrard was joined by Blurred co-founder Nik Govier and Freuds partner Lotte Jones to discuss all aspects of purpose-driven marcoms.

Garrard, who was the driving force behind market leader Unilever’s approach to sustainable business and communications, told The PR Show (listen to the full podcast below) that people are waking up to the reality that humans are causing irreversible damage to the planet – which has led to climate change, huge falls in insect and animal populations, more frequent and intense natural disasters and a range of other impacts.

"Consumers want to be part of the solution and they feel that big business is largely to blame for the problem," she said.

"They want to be able to say in a simple purchase that I’m backing a business that is responsible. Consumers recognise their buying power and increasingly will either lean in to support businesses that are transparently trying to do the right thing and boycott ones that they think are not getting on the bus and behaving responsibly. It’s a critical time."

One of the reasons why purpose has become so important is a growing distrust of towards institutions, including politicians, social media platforms, large corporations and some sections of the media.

Edelman’s most recent trust barometer pointed out that consumers are turning to brands to fill the trust void, and a recent WE Brands in Motion study concluded that British consumers will punish brands that behave unethically with their wallets.

"What people are looking for are institutions in which they can place their faith to run what matters to them in a way they feel is going to be responsible and look after not just today, but tomorrow," Garrard said.

Nik Govier: ‘We need to walk the walk’

Blurred co-founder Nik Govier told The PR Show why her agency has committed to only working with clients who either commit or aspire to meet the UN Sustainability Development Goals.

"It would be superficial if we only did it on a base level, so we applied our criteria and depth to it; it’s about being true to our own values and who we want to work for," she said.

"We’ve got a meeting with a couple of our clients who look slightly sketchy in that space. If the meeting with us is because they are saying, ‘we don’t know how to do this, help us’, then we will help take them there.

Govier said the key message is that sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’. 

"Enough businesses have proved there is financial sense in being purpose-led. We are seeing that in our own business, it’s translating to the bottom line...it’s not just consumer pressure, there’s major shareholder pressure."

Freuds partner Lotte Jones said the principles of purpose are "hugely important" and the agency was a founding player when the UN Sustainability Development Goals were established.

She told The PR Show that another additional benefit of doing the right thing was how important it is for attracting and retaining talent.

"A lot of corporates see this as making sense for [their staff]," she said. "Hundreds of people will work for hundreds of years for a cause, but not everyone will work as long for a corporation. It’s largely not talked about how it’s an attraction and pull for a lot of corporates."

Short-term vs long-term tension

Later in the podcast, Garrard explains why and how Unilever became the most progressive multinational in the world on sustainability – "a bit like changing the wheel while driving the car" – and the major breakthrough that allowed purpose to be at the heart of business.

The panel also discuss whether all brands and sectors have the right to play in the purpose space. 

On this point, Jones said: "Should we allow brands to fail in the quest to do good in this space? Yes". 

Govier added: "Brands just need to grow a pair".

Garrard said one particular sector had a tough challenge: "They are the epitome of the tension between delivering business and profit for shareholders and big pensions in the short-term versus being able to significant;y shift what their focus is planning for the long term."

There’s also talk about how to do purpose-driven market well and some of the barriers brands face. 

This is a ‘must listen’ episode of The PR Show in what has become one of the most important aspects of modern marcoms.

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