This is part of Maverick’s new Purpose-driven Communications series

By Marsha Imaniara, Manager, specializes in Crisis & Issues Management, Purpose and CSV

Only one year ago, Harry Potter author JK Rowling was still the hero of many millennials. Now, the once beloved storyteller has joined tens of other public figures, brands, and even your average Janes and Joes who got “cancelled” in recent years.

The phenomenon, known as “cancel culture”, usually takes place on social media, where a throng of netizens combines efforts to withdraw support for those who have said or done something deemed as offensive. In many cases, these cancellations amount to piling shame on the perpetrators, boycotting their products or services, and may even lead to the firing of the individuals involved.  

The culture reflects today’s society who grows increasingly “woke”. On the one hand, it can be a powerful tool for those who have long been powerless against public figures and entities that compound widespread injustice, inequality and prejudice. On the other, it can be a reflexive crusade where the goal is simply feeling a sense of righteousness and emotional satisfaction at taking down someone who was not as “woke”.

This is especially visible in countries with strong activism history, such as the United States, but there is evidence that the culture has taken its roots in Indonesia too. Instagram celebrity Awkarin, who last year stole the hearts of past skeptics through her newfound activism, got cancelled in the same year for re-publishing artists’ work on her Instagram feed without permission or giving any credits.  

In a world that is seemingly so quick to take offense, should companies and brands even try to have a social, rather than just a purely business, purpose? Or should businesses stick to business as usual?  

Why businesses need a Purpose beyond profit

Regardless of your size, what you sell, and whether you’ll actively use it in your marketing, I would argue that businesses in general need a Purpose. Specifically, one that does not revolve around selling a specific product or service, but answering specific needs of the communities the business serves.

Take The Body Shop’s “Enrich, Not Exploit” purpose. It answers customers’ demands for ethically made and sustainably sourced beauty products by, among others, pioneering fair trade, campaigning against animal-testing, and introducing a recycled plastic initiative. These have provided the brand with a loyal customer base.  

Gone are the days where businesses’ sole responsibility is to the shareholders. Today, employees and customers share more power to influence business success, and what they want is businesses that promote the well-being of the society.

Your Purpose defines why the business exists, informs your values and culture, provides context for strategy and decision making, and motivates stakeholders. If genuine and meaningful, it gives you legitimacy especially in today’s woke world.

That’s why Businesses that are driven by Purpose, rather than by generating Profit for shareholders, tend to outperform others, as recent studies by Gallup and Nielsen found. 

Articulating your Purpose

Once Purpose is defined, many companies and brands may find it tempting to introduce only low-cost, cosmetic changes that give them quick bragging rights in their splashy marketing efforts.

Do not fall into this trap.

Companies would  do well to learn from Unilever that recently tried to be “woke” on Black Lives Matter causes, only to be tripped up by the fact that it continues to market the “Fair and Lovely” skin-lightening cream. It was slammed by critics for its perceived hypocrisy. Unilever thought it would go away with simply rebranding the product to “Glow & Lovely” in India. Instead, it was “cancelled” for not doing enough and still reaping profits from a product deemed as problematic. 

Contrast this with Johnson & Johnson who pledged to stop selling skin-lightening products altogether.

Once you have defined your Purpose, your ever-going homework is to consistently articulate it. This means delivering it across all your touchpoints and ensuring that it is integral to your culture. If you stand for inclusivity, look inside and check whether your recruitment is diverse, whether you have anti-discrimination policy in place, whether you unconsciously alienate certain parts of your communities with the way you price or market your products.

Only then are you not simply using Purpose for sales, but instead it will naturally be infused into everything you do, including your marketing efforts and how you communicate in public realms.

Take Starbucks, for instance. Its purpose is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time”. It was no wonder it got into hot waters a couple years ago when two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia after the store manager racially profiled and called the police on them. This led some to mock Starbucks’ purpose statement. Instead of being defensive, the CEO swiftly harnessed the transformative power that Starbucks’ purpose already had. He swiftly acknowledged what the company could have done better and took action to nurture awareness of racial bias among its employees. Today, the company continues to add its voice to conversations around racism.  

While it may be debatable whether cancel culture  in Indonesia has reached a point at which it would have real and potentially profound impact on brands and corporations, having a Purpose beyond profit and consistently articulating it will arguably save companies a lot of potential headaches. 

If you intentionally choose a Purpose that reflects how your business wants to evolve, it can have a tremendous transformative impact. It drives employees, unites stakeholders, and inspires public goodwill toward your business. That is the true power of Purpose, even – or especially – in the “cancel culture” era.

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