Despite expected whistleblowing and endless data scandals, the speed technology continues to impact our everyday lives shows how much we’re prepared to invest in this era of uncertainty. Yet, despite ‘brandscapes’ often appearing fickle and callow, there are many good reasons to believe startups will make the difference we need in the world. The decent ones, at least.
For founders of conscious startups, pressure to produce results for investors may be their only constant. A typical day may be spent deciphering a fluctuating user base (that can shrink as quickly as it grows), pitting themselves against others for a share of voice, or foraging networks for values-aligned talent.
Over the past few months, I’ve interviewed entrepreneurs from many different sectors and markets. Of those who set up shop during the pandemic, but are still operational and growing, strong moral steer, self-awareness, and empathy are attributed to their success. Digging deeper, these founders all sensed early on that evaluating market potential and defining future success through the lens of the pandemic alone would not provide the foresight they would need. Instead, purpose and humanity were the tools of their new trade, helping them navigate complexity and keep their ideas in check. Usually beginning with connecting and engaging backers to believe in their vision, before setting out to make the change they intend to make a reality.
Before COVID, uncertainty was already rising. Civil unrest, trade disputes, climate change, and decarbonization impacted society. The old model of a separate and controllable external image had started to fizzle, and shared standards, where commitment to a mission and advocacy for intrinsic values, were already in play. However, as soon as the virus became a concern, many corporations swayed where earlier cited startups adapted. Unanimously-backed boardroom discussions advocating long-term performance over short-term gains were shelved. And, almost overnight, corporate leadership’s unease translated downstream into ‘do whatever you can to produce a favorable result’.
According to WARC, 63% of CMOs believe the primary goal of marketing is revenue growth, with 59% focused on enhancing margin growth. This insight begs the question: What must CEOs believe if CMOs accept this?
For many global corporations, whether responding to a worldwide pandemic, climatic or humanitarian crisis, the quick win keeps taking precedence over humanity—citing Shell’s recent retraction as a case in point. Lack of visibility bypasses good governance and past celebrations of commitment to change are quickly dismissed. A harsh reality Danone’s former CEO can attest to.
From global houses of brands to regional conglomerates, corporate marketing is disconnected from reality, literally stuck in a proverbial pickle. Without accountability, corporate leadership permits marketing to hold value creation and sustainability hostage. As such, marketing remains the world’s worst polluter.
The Proof Is In The Pollution
Hypocrisy is killing our planet. Despite developing powerful strategies around sustainable development, CPG/FMCG holding companies continue to put competitiveness and market positioning over the planet’s needs. Fact: The biggest and most prominent media spenders remain the world’s worst polluters of plastic. Year over year. This simple correlation (and truth) prevents catastrophic effects from receiving anywhere near as much airtime as their cause. So, sorry, Coca-Cola, a double-digit commitment isn’t good enough!
From product and team development to expectation management, there are a million and one things to think about for any business leader. But compromising long-term needs to appease short-term gains just to get a product across the line is a disastrous strategy—no matter where a company is in its journey.
Stanley Moss said, ‘brand is a shortcut to an informed decision.’ What Stanley captured so succinctly is a time-proven reality. If conscious leaders want to build a successful business, there’s no fast track, one-size-fits-all approach to building a sustainable brand. And that brand is the sum of the most distinguishable truths about a company.
Urgh, ‘Growth Hacking’.
‘Growth Hacking’ is a term coined by Sean Ellis, co-author of Hacking Growth and Founder of GrowthHackers.com. This rapid growth experimentation platform also lends its name to an annual conference. Growth Hacking was first made known in the startup world over a decade ago. But it wasn’t until recently that it became a buzzword in corporate marketing.
Empowered by data streams, champions of this trial-and-error approach tweet passionately about attending growth hacking boot camps and belonging to a tribe committed to disrupting and reinventing redundant marketing and sales practices. Yet, Growth Hacking encourages cost-effective tactics to gain exposure to attract and retain an active customer base. In other words, sell, sell, sell—results for result’s sake.
Growth Hacking’s prevalence in corporate marketing is worrying. More and more mainstream organizations are widening the talent search, hoping that this cost-effective, fail-fast inspired approach to experimentation will outpace the competition and turn around misfortunes. I don’t think Growth Hacking is inherently wrong, per se. But if the big picture is unclear, speculative, vague or ill-defined, short-term hacking tactics will inevitably come at the expense of sustainability. If hired to focus solely on commercial targets, Growth Hackers unintentionally run the risk of undermining the company’s purpose, missing opportunities to connect with all stakeholders and build lasting value. If there’s any disconnect between brand, strategy and execution, CEOs and founders aren’t just setting their businesses up for failure. Particularly in the hands of results-mandated marketing, tactical missteps can backfire, and the results can be catastrophic. Literally.
Less Hack, More Stack
As we continue to adapt to living and working in this era of uncertainty, the need to change remains constant. And when looking at the world’s most conscious and durable brands for inspiration, a more holistic approach to brand impact, management and protection provide inspiration and an opportunity to vote with our wallets.
Led by a higher purpose, brand is both a philosophical and strategic asset that works across the entire business—from marketing and communications to human resources, product development to customer experience. Brand coordinates all activities to ensure consistency of promise and value creation.
Lasting affinity is neither forged from following the latest trend nor reactive response. Building sustainable value requires meaning, coherence and consistency. For this, whether you’re a behemoth or a startup, every business needs brand clarity, a clear purpose and a way to measure its impact. Without these things, content is meaningless, presentation is messy, and any genuine intention to make a difference is misplaced.
Change begins with the simple realization that all business activity can either create or diminish value in one way or another. Corporate leaders can learn a lot from founders of purpose-led startups, starting with shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.
What’s clear is that good intention can neither be conceived, implemented, and indeed not hacked. And certainly not without first having identified an irrefutable reason-for-being. Achieving a vision requires a higher purpose, human-led philosophy, and total commitment to impact. So, pleading to the boards of behemoths: Be the change you say you’re looking to make, for all our sakes.
Dan Dimmock is a senior brand leader with over 20 years of experience in strategy, management, and sustainability. Based in the Middle East, he is managing partner of Firstwater (The Blake Project UAE), and works at the board level advising on brand transformation, identity, and impact.
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education