‘The biggest opportunity for brands today lies in cultivating a purpose-led culture’ - Anne Bahr Thompson, author, ‘Do Good’

13th Apr 2018
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From startups to giant firms, organisations of all sizes and sectors need to cultivate a strong sense of purpose and align their business journey with this broader responsibility.

Anne Bahr Thompson is the author of Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel both Purpose and Profit (see my book review). She is founder of OneSixtyFourth, a boutique consultancy, and was formerly head of consulting at Interbrand. She has more than 25 years experience as a global brand strategist, and holds an MBA from the Darden Graduate School at the University of Virginia.

The journey to brand citizenship progresses from “me” brands to “we” brands via the author’s five-step model, based on trust (deliver on promises), enrichment (make daily life easier or more inspiring), responsibility (treat people and the environment with respect), community (mirror the values shared by customers, employees, partners) and contribution (make a difference in the world).

Anne joins us in this interview on emerging trends in brand responsibility, purpose-led organisational culture, the importance of experimentation, and the role of consumers in promoting brand citizenship.

YourStory: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of brand citizenship you have come across?

Anne Bahr Thompson: Examples of Brand Citizenship are happening at an accelerated rate, and it’s exciting to watch the companies I highlight in Do Good progress even further. The most notable examples that come to mind are brands that are embracing Step 3 – Responsibility – and responding to their customers and employees calls to take more political stances – especially with respect to gun control in the US.

Many companies are making hard choices as they end their affiliations with the NRA and investments in gun manufacturers. Taking a position that is more overtly political is never easy and requires courage. Not everyone defines doing good in the same way.

YS: What is your current field of research in brands? 

ABT: At the moment, I’m conducting mostly client specific research that builds on many of the CultureQ learnings in the book. I’ve had conversations with a few agencies and consultancies about partnering to continue and potentially improve upon the research studies that led to my model of Brand Citizenship.

Although I haven’t yet found the right partner, I’m optimistic I will – whether it’s an agency, consultancy, think tank, client or collective of partners. Maintaining the integrity of the research so that we can continue to effectively track shifts in people’s expectations of brands, without superimposing any of our own theories, is an important criterion for any collaboration.

YS: How was your book received?

ABT: I can confidently report that all the feedback I’ve received on the book and my research that led to Brand Citizenship has been very positive. Current events, especially in the US, have spotlighted the increasing importance of the role business plays – and can play – in people’s lives and progressing society. The developments have made the Me-to-We continuum that underpins the five steps of the model even more relevant.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

ABT: At the moment I don’t have a next book in mind. But if I do decide to write one, I believe it will focus on turning my model of Brand Citizenship inward. I think the biggest opportunity for brands today lies in cultivating a purpose-led culture. One based on trust, transparency, and belongingness (or inclusion) that fosters greater meaning and fulfilment for employees – and thereby increases employee satisfaction, retention, and performance.

YS: How would other frameworks of strategy and innovation connect with your framework, eg. blue ocean, frugal innovation, cross-industry innovation?

ABT: Other frameworks of strategy and innovation enrich ideation and development of activities and programs that create a company-wide ethos of Brand Citizenship.

YS: There seems to be overlap across some of the five steps in your framework, eg. between responsibility and community. Are these distinctions firm, or fluid? 

ABT: Each step flows from – and leads to – the next. The model is absolutely fluid and will naturally advance over time as people’s expectations for brands – for business – increase. Each time one company does something better, the bar is raised for that brand, and indeed all brands.

YS: Looking outside Europe and the Americas, what do you see as good examples of brand citizenship?

ABT: In India, you have Tata as a very strong example. It’s a company I would love to spotlight and work with. The companies I highlight in the book all come from brands participants in my research named. I hope to one day have an opportunity to expand the research to other continents, and thereby broaden the examples of companies I spotlight.

YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your framework? They are already engaged in activities like trust and responsibility – can they use your framework to find appropriate partners?

ABT: The five steps of Brand Citizenship will help guide social entrepreneurs to more consistently connect the dots. Defining what each step means for their behaviour with various audiences can act as a guidepost for decision-making. It also can help ensure that they develop a purpose that is relevant to all their stakeholders.

And, yes, it can absolutely help them find or define the most appropriate partners. I’ve been invited a number of times to present and run working sessions for incubators that house social entrepreneurs at various stages of development – from startup to five or more years old – and each time it’s been energising to see how helpful the model is for them.

YS: How would governments use your frameworks? Any good examples you can cite here?

ABT: I haven’t yet applied the framework to governments, but I can absolutely see how it would apply. I’ve presented it to architects in the context of urban planning and would welcome the chance to work with a government to adapt the model to their needs.

YS: Are you planning an online companion with tools and case studies?

ABT: My publisher was recently purchased by HarperCollins. I’ve sent a note expressing interest in developing an online course of some sort. Although I haven’t heard back yet, I’m optimistic more will follow.

YS: Moving from the organisational to the individual level, what are some ways in which consumers can awaken their inner sense of purpose and use the five principles in your book?

ABT: While this doesn’t exactly answer your question, I’ve had a number of people who have read Do Good tell me they look at the brands they buy differently, and even have switched brands because of how the five-step framework has changed their perceptions and expectations.

Also, based on the learning in the book, I’ve developed a personal purpose workshop, which I’ve facilitated at a number of companies – mostly professional services and for women’s affiliation groups within these firms. I define personal purpose as the things that energise you plus the value you add plus your desired outcomes. When you identify how your personal purpose aligns with your company’s, work becomes highly fulfilling, rather than a chore or only a means of maintaining financial security. As with the model of Brand Citizenship, there’s a lot more to this.

YS: What would your response be to activists and sceptics who say that giant companies claiming to do good is just a whitewash or PR exercise? Do you come across polarisation in the field, and how hard is it to bridge these mindsets?

ABT: There is a lot of scepticism out there. Some of it is warranted and some of it isn’t. Brand Citizenship isn’t an advertising or PR campaign or even a promotional programme. The five steps of the model cultivate an ethos of responsibility across a business. It’s important to remember, it’s hard for any team to win a game when the people in the stands are rooting against it. People – customers, employees, suppliers, investors and activists alike – must step alongside companies that are on the pathway of Brand Citizenship; they need to support their efforts, collaborate with them, and co-create the future.

We are quick to call out brands when they do things wrong. We need to also be quick to call them out when they’re working hard to do things right. Brand Citizenship is a journey. Because it’s a new model for business, there are no quick fixes, guarantees or set models.

Experimentation and measured risks are an inherent part of the pathway. Participants in my research said they are willing to forgive a brand that makes a mistake, provided it is transparent and sincere in how it addresses an error. This is not to say we shouldn’t hold companies that purposefully do things wrong to task, but rather that we must give brands a little breathing room. If we don’t, they’ll stick with the status quo.

YS: You have rightly identified challenges that companies like Chipotle have faced in their brand journey – what would you say are the Top 3 challenges that companies will face in the path to brand citizenship?

ABT:

  1. Developing a purpose or mission that veers too much into the social space and doesn’t also encompass the value proposition for their business.
  2. Recovering and continuing to believe in your purpose after making a mistake.
  3. Believing that Brand Citizenship and aligning purpose and profit is an exercise that can be completed, rather than one that is ever evolving.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience? How can they ensure they ‘do good’ right from the outset?

ABT: Clearly define your purpose and brand from the start. Plum Organics, which I profile in Chapter 6 of the book, attributes its success to having done this. Also, recognise it may take more than one go to get it right. Lush handmade cosmetics and Seventh Generation, which are profiled in Chapter 8, illustrate this.

As Mrs Meyer’s and Burt’s Bees demonstrate in Chapter 5, your brand story has to resonate with your customers and be based on truth. Follow IKEA’s example, also in Chapter 5, and find real solutions to problems, don’t just resolve individual issues. And, take note of the fact that the way you treat your employees is pivotal to your success; like John Lewis Partnership, foster a culture of trust followed by a sense of inclusion and belonging with employees.

On a more basic level, ensure you don’t overpromise what you can do in your marketing communications. Evaluate your supply chain, and sustainability practices – set some goals and benchmarks for yourself. Make certain your philanthropy is in alignment with the purpose of your business, not simply your favorite charities. Get involved in your local community. And the list goes on….

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