Panama Papers fallout shows brands need to deliver value beyond profit

When what you say and what you do are not aligned it’s going to make for a bumpy ride, says Michelle Keaney, partnership director at The Marketing Academy and founder of Three Point Zero.

Michelle Keaney

As the Panama Papers story and the fallout continue to dominate front pages, there are some huge lessons for marketers.

Much of the public outcry surrounding the Panama Papers lies in the hypocrisy of public figures. As the spheres of business, government and society converge the actions of our leaders, institutions and brands are under an ever-increasing degree of scrutiny. When we decide to put our trust in leaders or brands, in the most part, we assume integrity as a given.

These high profile revelations of greed and inauthentic behaviour leave us feeling betrayed and angry. The drip-feed of information by Number 10’s press office that underpinned the various chapters of the story as it unfolded could mean that David Cameron has lost credibility with voters, and many now won’t believe him no matter what he says.

When brands are seen to behave in an inauthentic way we feel equally betrayed and cynical. The level of trust in business is recovering, but slowly. Edelman’s 2016 trust barometer shows business enjoyed a small five percentage point increase year-on-year but it remains low at 53%.

The report also shows that 80% of those surveyed are looking for a businesses to “take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic conditions and social conditions in the community where it operates”, an increase of six percentage points from 2015. Our expectations on business have never been higher, and more difficult to meet.

As citizens and consumers we seek authenticity and a strong sense of purpose – the value your business adds to the world over and above simply making money – in order to build trust in business. At the heart of the conversation is a human need, a desire to see the brands that we buy have congruence between what they say and what they do. We want to know these brands and their leaders have integrity, otherwise how can we trust anything they say about product quality or efficacy?

Responsible Business Week is taking place this week (18-22 April) with the lead debate entitled ‘Moving the dial on trust’. It’s clear that momentum around the need for brands to be more transparent and purposeful is fast gaining pace.

Swap the word responsible for any of the synonyms that surround this debate; purposeful, sustainable or conscious and the underlying premise is that brand owners and the wider institution of business must acknowledge their inherent responsibility to deliver value beyond profit, and to draw a clear line between what they say and what they do.

Creating this consistency starts by truly understanding business purpose and then using it as an orientation point for every business decision. This is not CSR or ‘doing good’, but the heart of corporate strategy. It is a central, defensible positioning that all activities revolve around and a filter for business behaviour externally and internally.

The business case for purpose is building. Jim Stengel’s ‘Grow’, a seminal publication of a ten-year growth study of over 50,000 brands, revealed the brands that base their business on the ideal of improving people’s lives hugely outperform their category competitors. More recently, Deloitte’s 2016 Millennials Report shows that 87% of respondents worldwide believe that “the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance”.

For brand owners the premise is simple. Harnessing your brand purpose and putting the needs of communities first will ensure that increased levels of trust and radically better business performance will follow. With a healthier top line comes a healthier bottom line too, with higher levels of employee retention and higher engagement in the workplace.

Consumers and employees seek substance and purpose from the brands that we choose to work with and for, and it starts with being authentic, purposeful and making sure that what you say and what you do are one and the same.



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