Authenticity: the key to winning with purpose

April 21, 2017 | Jeff Macdonald

Increasingly brands are turning to purpose as they realise that traditional marketing approaches are less and less effective among today’s consumers. Globally 60% think that branded content is just clutter (Meaningful Brands 2017, Havas Media). Faced with seemingly endless product proliferation, they are choosing brands that offer more than just functional or emotional benefits. Instead, they are searching for a value proposition that makes a meaningful and authentic contribution to their lives and broader society.

Consumers are seeking brands that have a purpose which contributes to the creation of a better world.

However, there is a huge difference between having a purpose and having a great purpose. Just because you have managed to align on a collection of words in a slogan that sounds somewhat worthy does not mean that you are suddenly going to have to fight off hordes of consumers rushing to show their undying loyalty to you and your newly constructed vision and cause. They are way more marketing savvy and ultra-suspicious of brand intentions – especially younger Millennial and Gen Z consumers (those defined as being born since 1980).

The good news is that this is an audience who actively wants to support brands that make a real, measurable contribution to a better world. Nonetheless, they are a hyper-smart, hyper-sensitive, hyper-tuned-in generation who – aided by the power of digital technology – can sniff insincerity, fakeness and opportunism from a mile away and are not shy to share this fact with millions at the click of a button.

The stakes are high. Get it right and you will build significant competitive differentiation over those brands still playing by the old rules. Get it wrong and you will be picking up the pieces of your shattered reputation for a fair while. Just ask Audi USA after their recent Super Bowl ad fiasco!

Fortunately, the secret to getting it right is largely down to a single ingredient totally under your control: authenticity. For those of you who are close to the Millennial and Gen Z audience this is something that you will have heard repeatedly in different contexts. Authenticity is king, especially when it comes to purpose.

Whilst it may seem a totally obvious essential ingredient to a successful purpose, I can guarantee that a lot of brands fall short when they honestly critique the current activation of their purpose.Those that get it right are winning big. And Nike is a great example that proves that purpose is not the preserve of small, new social start-up organisations!

Let’s explore the key elements that Nike are getting right in building their authenticity credentials to create an army of passionate believers:

1. Understand the core belief that defines your cultural community and have your own, unique POV on this

Authentic purpose is found by first looking outside the organization. It is a real thing, not a marketing creation generated by clever people shifting interesting words around on a piece of paper. That means finding the culture you will support with your purpose and the belief that defines and binds them.Additionally, you will need to identify the high level human concept that is meaningful to and motivates them. As this is going to be (by definition) a very big territory, you need to be clear what your unique point of view on this space is – otherwise you risk ending up with something so big, it actually becomes generic or unrealistic (so, not authentic!).

In Nike’s case this means understanding that the core belief that defines and motivates the culture at the heart of the communities that use sports apparel and equipment is human potential. To be the best they can. Nike has its own unique point of view on this – namely that everyone should have the opportunity to maximize their potential. They fight restrictions and barriers that get in the way of this.

2. Take on the significant societal fights and tensions impacting your community’s core belief

Having clarified your cultural identity group and their values, you then need to address the significant societal fights that create tensions with the cultural beliefs of your community. To ignore these would be inauthentic. That might mean taking on some big, at times seemingly scary, challenges but that’s what being true to the beliefs and POV that underpin your purpose takes. Purpose is real, not manufactured. Great purpose should not be bland.

Nike have consistently taken up the fight for many social causes that stop people achieving their full human potential. From gender equality (If You Let Me Play Sports, Girl Effect , Women In Sports) to racial equality (Equality) to women’s rights in the Arab world (What Will They Say About You?).

3. ‘Do’ as well as ‘say’

Authenticity in activating purpose means that the brand needs to ‘do’ as well as ‘say’. Purpose is about creating a better world. Whilst communication can contribute to driving change – through raising awareness, shifting attitudes and recruiting people to the cause – without action real change is impossible. For brand purpose, campaigns that stop at communications  reek of opportunism and will quite understandably come under extreme scrutiny.  As stated earlier, purpose belongs to the cultural community and not the brand. Therefore, ‘do’ activation should be about supporting and facilitating action amongst the community. It should be a more collaborative and co-creative approach. This should be great news for brands as it generates much more authentic and interesting (often edgy) grassroots content and engagement than traditional agency generated activity. It becomes a virtuous circle of highly relevant activation: for the community – by the community – for the community.

Nike’s Girl Effect campaign for gender equality is a great example of authentic, ongoing support by a brand, working strongly in tandem with partners who were part of this ecosystem for change. Launched by Nike in 2004, it later became an independent creative social business that empowers women to stand for their rights, to believe in their dreams, to create equal opportunities and to value their wellbeing. By 2020, Nike aims to have 30 million active participants, inspiring more than 350 million people to create a new normal for girls and to reduce the number of millions of girls living in extreme poverty. Nike has also worked actively with leading sport stars – such as figure skater Zahra Lari and weightlifter Amna Al Haddad – to support women’s participation in sport in Arab countries to develop the Pro Hijab which will be available from Spring 2018. Both of these examples demonstrate how Nike stays true to their purpose and motivates the change they want to create in the world.

4. Live your brand purpose from the inside out

The most fundamental piece of authenticity comes from the heart of the brand or business. The employees and internal culture, particularly the driving belief and human goal, are vital because purpose is built from the inside out. This often comes naturally for smaller or newer brands as their history is short enough for brand founder’s influence to still be strong, or because their original driving purpose is still prevalent in the business. The scale that arrives with significant growth – and the accompanying business processes required to manage such growth – have yet to diminish that powerful spirit. For larger, longer established brands and businesses, there is often need to reignite the cultural values and behaviours which underpin their purpose. They need to get closer to the culture that the purpose is serving.

That means hiring people that are part of the culture. It means actively being part of the culture. Living it. Engaging in the activities that matter to the members of that culture. Designing the office to be true to the culture. This is authenticity. This will mean that your employees are significantly more inspired and productive – especially Millennial employees. According to a 2015 white paper, Unlocking Millennial Talent 2015, as many as 60% of Millennials said a sense of purpose is part of the reason they chose to work at their current employer. It also means that the activation of your purpose happens faster, at a larger scale and more effectively as you interact authentically and naturally with an external culture that you totally connect with, because it matches your internal culture! Activation ideas are intuitive and rapidly scalable through your close community ties.

Nike is well known for living and breathing its culture. Its employees are often ex-athletes or simply love sports. Their office facilities include state of the art sport facilities. Their employees proactively get involved in the local sports communities. Their Community Ambassador program gives Nike employees the opportunity to make a positive impact in their communities. In schools and communities around the world, Nike Ambassadors volunteer to provide quality coaching for kids in sport and physical activity, passing on their passion for sport to the next generation. In China, for example, the programme reaches more than 2 million children.

5. Purpose is a long-term vision, not a short-term campaign

Finally, brands and business need to remember that authenticity has a longevity to it. Purpose is not a tactical decision that will be changed every 12 months. It should be a long-term (ideally permanent) commitment that defines who the brand or business is. At the very least, accept it as a long-term strategy and plan on the basis of a 5+ year horizon. You can still have lots of short-term business driving initiatives within this – it just means you have a clear, consistent (authentic!) purpose that is providing very clear direction in the short-term.

Nike’s consistency of purpose is very clear. But they also work hard to keep that fresh and culturally relevant by identifying opportunities fast. Which it can because the purpose is so clear and the interactions with its cultural community so strong. And the result of this incredibly strong and authentic purpose is that Nike’s close relationship with its community translates into the loyalty and sales that make it the most valuable apparel brand in the world with over $30bn in revenue. So yes, Nike is a pretty cool brand. But what makes it most cool for today’s generation is its authenticity of purpose.


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