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How Marketers Can Drive Social Change and Profits


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

For a long time, governments and non-profits have taken the lead in trying to change people’s behavior in ways that improve our environment, communities and lives – whether it’s getting us to quit smoking or recycle, save energy or avoid drugs. But our guest today says that companies can run these types of campaigns, too. And that it’s not only good for society but also their bottom lines. Here’s the start of one that aired in Kenya….

COMMERCIAL: What’s you’re about to see is not an advertisement. This is a life saving message that every Kenyan needs to see, which could save the lives of millions of children…

ALISON BEARD: It goes on to show how handwashing saves children’s lives. And it was paid for by Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand. Our guest is going to explain why more of the private sector should consider mission-led marketing like this, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people are looking to businesses for leadership in relief, response, and recovery efforts.

Myriam Sidibe is a public health expert, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Unilever’s first social mission manager. She’s the author of the HBR article “Marketing Meets Mission” as well as the book Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth through Purpose. Myriam, thanks for speaking with me

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Thank you so much Alison for having me today on this podcast.

ALISON BEARD:  So, you do have this background in public health.  Why did you start working with corporate marketing departments to advance the causes that you care about?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Well, I mean I did a doctorate in public health at the London School of Hygiene in tropical medicine, focused on handwashing behavior change.  And then I started realizing that probably the most powerful platform that I could have would be to sit with the world’s largest soap manufacturer.  Obviously, soap manufacturers that have been thinking and making sure that people buy soap, over the last centuries, would have a lot of experience, but also an amazing reach in trying to get people to wash their hands more regularly.

So, it seemed like it was, it was very interesting combination of luck as well as a vision.  But I think for me it started making, being really clear that brands can and must play a critical role in tackling some of these global health issues.  And that there is a role in marketing as a discipline if you infuse it with purpose, with values, with processes and trying to get the best out of every marketing dollar spent in trying to get people to pick up a product, but to use that product more meaningfully.

I think that was always a very important element for me wanting to join the private sector, is to say I will be able to speak to them, to the you know, like the 113 mothers who buy that soap every second for their families, to be able to make a real genuine difference because through the pack, for the reason why they’re going to get that soap to protect their family, we will be able to pass a message that would be very meaningful for their lives. To really try to see whether you could work with some of the masterminds of behavior changes, I called them, the marketeers.  To see whether we could influence positively the lifestyles and the norms of people and their hygiene habits.

ALISON BEARD:  So, I can easily see the connection between a handwashing campaign which is public service, but then higher sales for soap.  What are some other types of mission-driven marketing campaigns that you’ve worked on or studied that might be more surprising?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Probably the most surprising one, which was somewhere hidden alongside in my book, was the Carling Black Label and how a beer has been thinking about tackling gender based violence and what their role could be in terms of reducing gender based violence in South Africa.

And they came up with a campaign that’s called hashtag No Excuses.  That will actually ensure that we tackle toxic masculinity at its core and that we embedding men with a set of values that will range from recognizing what their role in societies are.  So I think that for me was, is more surprising and maybe different than a soap which obviously is directly linked to its product.

Another one that’s really interesting is obviously, the example of Discovery Limited which is a purpose-led insurance company that’s trying to drive health behavioral change at scale through their proposition of trying to get their vitality brand.  And you can see the kind of impact that they’ve shown when it comes to increasing people’s nutrition, increasing people’s movements, and making sure that people are staying fit as well.

And I’ve also looked at brands that are look like Durex.  The Durex brand from Reckitt Benckiser looked at how through their programs of condoms and they are actually trying to reduce HIV/AIDS infection.  And of course there’s the very famous Dove example which is around bending body confidence for girls and women around the world.  And seeing how that is possible through a product and a brand at making women feel more beautiful.

ALISON BEARD:  And then your argument is that these initiatives aren’t just good for society in driving awareness, or improving behavior, but also for the companies that are invest in them.  Because they increase brand loyalty and ideally sales.

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Absolutely.  And what my framework does is try to bridge the divide between what a brand would say and what a brand would do.  Right.  So to make sure that what you’re trying to do is embed real impact, which basically is looking at what the return is going to be both in terms of ROI for the brand and the growth, as well as ROI for social impact.

But we’ve seen very clearly that the brands that are managing to embed purpose at the core of their intervention, not so much just what they say, but also what they’re doing are really making a huge difference in terms of different situation to their consumers and when consumer know that you’re really genuine about what you’re trying to do, I think you see a brand love and a brand loyalty that we’ve seen over and over again is making a huge difference.

It obviously can drive a different situation in a way, in the consumer top of mind and purchase intent which is very different than a normal brand would do.  And I think in very difficult times as well, it becomes a place of trust for the consumer to know that this is a brand that has been consistently talking about handwashing, has been consistently talking about gender equality or gender-based violence, and I think there is a level of trust in equity.  Which I think is making, driving a huge impact for brands and run growth as well in the future.

ALISON BEARD:  Is it sometimes hard to make that case to CFOs of companies for example, when they could be spending the money to simply promote their products in a traditional way?  Or do you feel that people have come around to this idea of purpose-led marketing?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  I think it’s still hard because it means that it’s a commitment long-term.  It’s not, it’s not just a one-off campaign for which – which you will see some brands do that.  But I think more and more the consumer’s going to be discerning and can tell the difference between just a window dressing and what I’m calling purpose-washing, versus actually really driving a long term, meaningful commitment.

And I think it takes that long if you’ve seen the example of the Lifebuoy case study where it’s been like 10 years of trying to drive this one billion of, you know, constantly rethinking what exactly we would be doing with those brands, for example.  To really meaningfully make a difference.

ALISON BEARD:  How does a company go about figuring out which social mission is right for their particular brand?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  My advice to any company is, and any brand is to say, you need to go at the intersection of what your product can do, versus what needs is there in societies.  And how do you plug a particular need to be able to make that a genuine impact?  I think that for me is absolutely critical.

And you look to really, and I’ve come up with a very simple checklist in the article, but also in the book for any brand managers that want to make a difference.  But you know, you’ll need to check whether it, you know, the social goal you’ve identified can really benefit from your involvement.  I mean if you can’t, there’s no point.  Because I think its force-fitted and actually there’s probably other people that might be better suited to do that.

Whether it can open up future markets for the brand, whether it will be considered worthwhile by all your stakeholders, whether it will yield results that will be measures and made visible to them, and of course if you’d be able to attract and you know, needed resources, budgets and partners.  And I think if you can align that with your company’s wide strategic interest then of course you’re not operating in a vacuum.  You’re operating with muscle power, probably big corporations behind you that can really make a dent to a particular social issues and thinking about how you can make that happen.

ALISON BEARD:  Do you think it’s possible for every brand, every company to find some purpose driven campaign that they can support?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  I think you could find there’s quite a lot.  I think to the exception of harmful products that you’d have to think twice about how you would make that happen.  But then, look at the example of Carling Black Label.  If you think about harmful use of alcohol and yet there is something genuine about wanting to make a difference and really not putting just the entire excuse of gender-based violence on alcohol, right.

So I do think that there is an opportunity with the range of the Sustainable Development Goals that have been set by the UN, to see if there’s a range of issues that almost any brand can really try to position itself.  And I think what will make the difference between the ones that are really committed and not, is their ability to stick to the commitment over longer term.  So you can really see and assess which impacts you’re currently having.

ALISON BEARD:  How do you build the support for that long-term commitment?  You’re obviously starting with the CEO and marketing department, but how do you cultivate it around the company?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Well there’s a lot of evangelism, and I think there’s also buying short-term gains versus longer term vision.  And a lot of things that I’ve done is changing the culture as we kept going.  So every year I would take the entire team to New York to the UN General Assembly and that people would look out and see them as like, an equal partner.  For example on Lifebuoy.

And to think every year there is a certain level of joint accountability for what the state of the world is.  Which I think the more you share that with your counterparts in the private sector and especially in the brands, the more you will get a full alignment where they really see what they’re trying to make a difference to.  And I think ultimately this is where we need to really make sure that people can see that they’re needed beyond the everyday everyday sales trackers that indeed their work is worthwhile in this role.  And actually I really genuinely believe that they are.

So, but sometimes you do have to give the short visibility, PR stint, getting you some awards somewhere, so that you can keep the investment going because it takes time to prove that.  And I think this is where the leadership of a strong CEO, or a blueprint like the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we have.  Which was a 10 year blueprint of how we do business.  So that you can keep going back saying actually you’ve committed to reaching one billion.  You can’t change that.  Even if the going gets tough and you do get a bad results in a year, you are externally committed to this.  So therefore you have to stay on the track.

ALISON BEARD:  So measuring ROI both in terms of supporting your cause and the benefits to the company is critical – you have to figure out what those metrics are going to be?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Absolutely.  Measurement becomes so essential.  You need to track the resources that are devoted to different projects and the progress towards social goals.  And then, only then brands can identify the most cost-effective strategies.  I talk about measuring at three different levels.  I talk about measuring at brands level where you’re boosting sales, margins, market penetration.  Are you really making a difference for the brand?  Are you building brand equity?  And we’ve seen that.  For example we’ve seen that Lifebuoy has become one of Unilever’s fastest-growing brand.  But the brand was associated with more than that.  It was associated also with handwashing program in the public mind.  It was almost like the door opener in a lot of new markets in Africa and Asia for example.

But and then you have to take it down to, or take it up to, should I say, to the organizational level.  To see is this sustaining projects team?  Are they, do people want to stay longer on your brand because they feel that the contribution to the social mission is worthwhile. They want to see the projects mature and integrate at the, you know, within the growth strategy of the brand.  Is it attracting more partners for example that are really interested in getting involved?  And I think that again is another very important element.

And I think lastly, but not, which is super important is what I was telling you about the public level.  Right? So, making sure that you continue having some support from businesses and public sector partners.  Are you getting awards?  I mean I can’t count the number of awards that we got on Lifebuoy over the last 10 years.  Is it providing you access to networks that you would never have on your own if you weren’t that committed to a social program?

And I think that’s where it becomes absolutely critical because –answering these questions is more than claiming a social purpose to be accountable for its performance.  It’s about making sure that everybody is convinced, all the stakeholders, are convinced that what you are saying, you’re actually doing.  And I think this is what, this framework that I’m talking about in this article is really critical.  Because it really enables you to embed purpose at the core of your, of your, of your, of your strategy.

ALISON BEARD:  And those awards for Lifebuoy came because it made meaningful progress in handwashing goals, right?  You know, there’s something like a 22 percent increase in handwashing among children in Kenya.

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Yes.  Absolutely.  And I think this is what we, you could tell.  I mean and the more we could come and have peer reviewed papers talking about how much impact we were making and whether we were making impact on facewashing and whether we trying to change and reduce the prevalence of Trachoma for example.  Then governments started talking, and NGOs, to look at you as an equal partner.  A partner that is actually contributing something that is making a genuine different that has the scale, the reach and also the know-how in terms of also human capita expertise in prevention driven campaigns.  In a way that will do, can complement what they’re currently doing.

ALISON BEARD:  And there’s potential for smaller initiatives to scale, you know, either by organic expansion, but also by partnering with other companies, with public organizations – to bring it from one city to another, or one country to another?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  The whole thing is about how do you get to drive transformation on change at scale and you can’t do this alone.  So it’s got to be about supplying some complimentary skills, expertise, resources and network. And then carefully select them to ensure there’s a good fit on goals and budgets and activities.  And partnering with governments and NGOs is mutually beneficial.  Because like, a company’s resource can help the public sector actually keep its goal and the company can get some legitimacy.  So it will really help in terms of support for entering markets, for expanding, for giving you fresh perspective that can galvanize some innovation and learning as well.

And I think all this is very important when you come to, you know, you’re either an SME on the growth, or you are a brand trying to penetrate new markets as well.  And it’s not uncommon that you sometimes, you even work with your competitors.  And see how you can deliver some of these benefits.

We’ve seen that.  I mean I’ve done so much partnership and I would say the one billion target goal of Lifebuoy, and the growth that we’ve seen over the last 10 years in Lifebuoy has been primarily driven through partnerships.  Partnerships with government.  Partnerships with NGOs.  Partnerships with even different funders thinking about blended financing.  And thinking about ways in which you can put your marketing resources with some other donor’s resources and get one plus one equals three.

I think it’s about creating a win, win, win partnership.  Win for the brand.  A win for the public sector because you’re filling up a gap that wouldn’t exist.  And a win for the poorest communities, or the communities or the consumers that would benefit from that.  And I think that for me is always at the core of the conversation that I have, is to make sure that this win, win, win is really absolutely central.

ALISON BEARD:  Why should marketers, not the corporate social responsibility departments, be the people leading the way on these initiatives?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  I think it needs to be core to the developing of sustainable business model, right.  And I don’t think that is something that you’d be able to do if you’re dealing with it from periphery to the business.  This is the reason why I stepped into marketing and straight into brands for 15 years.  Because I felt that this is where you can really embed.  The small changes you’re making are likely to transform into large scale impacts because it’s a small change within a way in which we market.

For example, something small like that we brought in at some point where we realized that new, little mortality reduction is absolutely critical.  That 44 percent of the deaths that are happening in terms of diarrheal disease and respiratory infections actually happen in the first 28 days of the life of a child.  So therefore, being able to focus on our commercials and our marketing and our targeting to the new mom, became absolutely critical.  It was a small change based on the small insight and evidence, but it made a huge difference in terms of harnessing all the power of what the brand and the business could put to the table to be able to respond to that.

And I think for me this is where the conversation starts becoming absolutely interesting which I think cannot be done from the philanthropy perspective.  It has to be done from a core business perspective because philanthropy would be limited in trying to harness PR, maybe support in terms of enabling environment which is very critical.  But it’s not enough in terms of driving the systemic change that I’m talking about in this framework.  And that only happens when you can really drive a shared value model.

ALISON BEARD:  So how do you make sure since it’s coming from the marketing department, that consumers feel it’s an authentic campaign rather than a manipulative one?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  An authentic campaign rather than a manipulative one comes from the depth of commitment that the company and the brand would put on the table.  And I think that starts becoming clear if you’ve stuck with it for a couple of years and I don’t believe that brands should talk before they’ve really shown progress and shown impact, right.

So I think this is where the conversation really starts.  When you can really show that you are driving real impact through the years, right.  And then I think this is when the consumer starts to trust you saying, well, Lifebuoy has been talking about this for decades.  They’re talking about help a child reach 5.  Not a neonatal mortality look at trachoma prevention.  They’ve looked at, there should be so many examples from which to tap into that it’s impossible to see, to call it as window dressing because people can see that your entire innovation actually is led by your commitment to your social mission.

ALISON BEARD:  All of the companies that are creating Covid-19 related marketing campaigns now, either explaining how they’re helping, by giving money back to consumers, or putting people in touch with each other, thanking first responders.  Those aren’t quite what we’re talking about here, right?  They’re sort of mission-driven campaigns, but they’re not moving the needle in terms of future behavior.  So would you like to see a shift in the marketing you’re currently seeing around the pandemic, or what you were just talking about?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I think a lot of this campaigns and brands need to embed what they’re going to do around Covid-19 on evidence based behavioral change.  So I’m really thinking about what are the prevention that we’re, preventions behaviors that we’re looking at.  So, whether we’re talking about hand hygiene, we’re talking about wearing a mask, in the hygiene equate, what are we talking about, physical distancing?  And what does that mean, physical distancing in countries like, where I’m sitting now in Nairobi where in urban slums people are all, there’re 12 people sharing a room.  What exactly does that mean?

At the core of this is really thinking about how you’re going to really disrupt peoples’ settings and make a messaging very dynamic so that you can reward the socially acceptable, or socially desired behavior.  But which is really hard to comply to.  It’s not just enough about saying like wash your hands with my brand.  It’s, you need to be able to say, wash your hands with any soap.  There’re moments where having brand superiority is key, but in this particular instance it’s about showing that all brands are equal and all of them are trying to be innovative, dynamic with the way that they are currently addressing the issue of people updates on behaviors on handwashing with soap for example.

ALISON BEARD:  So, what do you hope that companies do as we emerge from this Coronavirus crisis?  Not just on promoting handwashing, or access to water, or better hygiene, but just do you want them to be doing more of this mission driven work and do you think this pandemic will actually spur that change?

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Yes.  I am obviously worried about what will happen in terms of you know, current recession and the environment in which we will be evolving in and business is trying to obviously close down between themselves and say look, we really just need to focus on our bottom line.

But I think the model that we’ve seen and the model that I’ve been working on the last 15 years is clearly identifying that by being more holistically thinking about your role in society and embedding this into your growth strategy, that you can rebuild business better.

And I think with Covid-19 people have now spent weeks and months at home and realizing how useless some of the regular consumerism is that they’ve been doing, I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the same level of consumerism plus I think people are not going to rush out to go buy brands that don’t stand for anything.

This framework to me is a clear example of what you can build into your strategies for moving forward after Covid-19, so that you can build back a business that’s more connected to communities, more connected to individuals, more connected to your supply chain, more connected to all the, the entire value chain that you operate into.

And I feel like this, this will be what compassion capitalism can be.  Or stakeholder’s capitalism.  It’s really the foundation of rebuilding what the societies will be in the future and, but for that you need a really clear blueprint and a framework doing that.  And I believe that this is what this framework will do because it will enable these brands and this community to go in there.  Less about having to do, you know, the one-off CSR, but really rethinking about what their role is so that they can rebuild themselves more meaningfully in the future.

ALISON BEARD:  Terrific.  I hope that’s true.

MYRIAM SIDIBE:  Thank you so much.

ALISON BEARD:  That’s Myriam Sidibe.  She’s a fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School and author of the article, “Marketing Meets Mission,” which you can find in the May/June issue of Harvard Business Review, or at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe.  We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt.  Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.  Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast.  I’m Alison Beard.

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