Unilever exploited new germ theory to introduce the idea of handwashing with soap

Why social mission matters

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For tech companies to thrive today they need a strong social mission, while avoiding getting caught in the ‘purpose-wash’ trap, says author Andy Last.

Be under no illusion. If you think that here is another book about modern corporate sustainability practices creaking under the weight of its own worthiness, then it’s time to think again. This is because author of ‘Business on a Mission’, Andy Last, is categorically clear on why today’s organisations need to have a social mission: “It will help you to improve the performance of your business.” Make more money? “Yes.”

Last says it doesn’t matter what area of commerce you are in – though he’s happy to link his ideas to the engineering and technology space. If you want your corporation to succeed in a changing post-pandemic digital landscape, you need to be able to demonstrate that your business is fit for purpose in the modern world. “There are two megatrends that are changing the way we do everything. First is the general acceptance that climate change is here and that we have to do something about it. People are demanding change on this, and that business plays its role in that change. Second, the digital connectivity that we all have means that everyone, everywhere can see what’s going on in other places: supply chains can no longer be hidden, and businesses can’t hide lack of diversity or lack of fairness in them. Those things now become very public, very quickly, and companies need to be on top of that.”

All of which means that we live in a world where, according to Last, investors are now saying that “unless you have a clear environmental impact plan to deal with climate change; and unless you have a plan that shows your understanding of your relationship with society and how you are going to work with society over the coming decades, then you are going to be too risky an investment for our money”. In other words, a strong social mission opens the door to commercial success. Or at least, it won’t slam that door shut on you in the way that outdated late-20th-century corporate attitudes – ‘make money at all costs’ – certainly will.

In a nutshell, ‘Business on a Mission’ is about how to put these notions of social responsibility and sustainability into the culture of any business without it becoming a standalone cost. “I focus on the core drivers of the business, and the book is full of models for doing this. I use examples from a wide range of industries to show what works and what hasn’t worked in the past. And I’ve done interviews with business leaders to show how they have driven change in this area.”

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‘Business on a Mission’

Inspired by the history of the Unilever brand, ‘Business on a Mission’ is author Andy Last’s roadmap for what it means to build a sustainable brand based on a sense of social mission. More than a century ago Unilever exploited new thinking in germ theory to introduce the idea of handwashing with soap. The brand Lifebuoy became a household name and its owner became a publicly traded company.

The message is that business success and social mission go hand-in-hand, says Last, whose book provides a guide for how organisations can adapt to the changing world and evolving expectations of stakeholders to build more purpose-led, sustainable businesses.

It describes how to curate a brand that talks to the emerging Gen Z consumer base, drives sales through social missions, while attracting and retaining the best talent – without falling into the trap of alienating your stakeholders with woke-wash.

Last is fascinated by the Unilever story, and in ‘Business on a Mission’ he bookends the modern didactic content about brand building in the context of sustainability with a narrative that feels almost like a parable of social reform, with William Hesketh Lever as the central character. Looking back a century to a time before the welfare state, “it was in the interest of companies like Lever Brothers to look after the welfare of their workforce – but there were also other organisations like Boots, Cadbury and Carlsberg doing very similar things. Lever understood that a healthy workforce was a productive workforce. He realised that by making soap for the first time affordable to the masses, it would protect his workforce from water-borne diseases that were prevalent in the slums on the banks of the river Mersey. There was a definite social purpose in terms of reducing morbidity and mortality.”

Last has a personal interest in the story: he recalls growing up on the Wirral across the banks of the Mersey from Liverpool, surrounded by the legacy of industrialists such as Lever, whose gargantuan wealth was built on the Lifebuoy soap brand. “There was a ready-made market for the business in his own workforce, and Lever understood the business case.”

Three decades later, Last went to the slums of Nairobi to visit a handwashing project on behalf of Unilever, “basically to see if there was a decent corporate social responsibility story there. In Kibera I saw handwashing lessons in schools – Lifebuoy teaching children and parents how they could protect themselves from diseases.” Last explains that every year over two million children die before their fifth birthday due to diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia.

“The simple act of handwashing with soap at the appropriate time could cut this number in half, as William Lever knew. But Lever might also have pointed out that the story was not one of Lifebuoy’s philanthropy, nor Unilever’s corporate social responsibility.” It was, in fact, how the company was building its business in Africa by giving it a social mission. “More people washing their hands more often meant more lives saved and more soap sold. The real Lifebuoy story was what it had always been: growing a business through a social mission.”

As one of the co-founders of brand consultancy Mullenlowe Salt, Last is used to talking to company’s about how to reposition their brands to maximise the impact of their social mission, draw attention to their sustainability initiatives and get ahead of any past behaviours that may today be considered to be skeletons in the cupboard. The point of these exercises is to “link them back to business growth”. But it is not enough to deliver your sustainability narrative: you have to use the right tone.

“People use a different voice when they talk about social mission,” says Last, commenting on the “descent into worthiness and hushed tones, the guilt-ridden reverence to the forces of good. You need to speak in your normal voice when talking about social mission,” because if you don’t, the whole discourse will inevitably sound insincere while doing “nothing to change perceptions, nothing to build trust, and nothing to stop accusations of greenwash”. All this while sending a “subliminal message to employees that this stuff isn’t really part of the business”. And if that wasn’t enough, people get fatigued by the dialect of social cause activism, “so you have to be careful that you don’t get into woke-wash too”.

The main conclusion of ‘Business on a Mission’ is that social mission is all about making your business thrive. “You can never engage the organisation fully unless everyone believes it will drive the business forward, and that means being explicit that the purpose of the social mission is to drive growth.”

‘Business on a Mission: How to Build a Sustainable Brand’ by Andy Last is from Routledge, £29.99


Purpose or pompous?

Marketing and communications have had a troubled relationship with how business engages with society. The term ‘greenwash’ was invented to describe how companies tried to cover up their true motives or deflect attention away from more controversial issues.

The practice developed as the environmental movement grew in the 1960s and newly greened corporate images started to appear. Greenwash itself was first described by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986. He used it to characterise the signs we’re now familiar with seeing in hotel rooms asking us to reuse towels to save the planet, signs that omit to mention the saving in laundry costs this makes for the hotel owners.

The practice reached its low water mark on Earth Day 20 in 1990 when DuPont released a corporate ad of seals clapping, whales jumping and flamingos flying to the soundtrack of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. This ad, designed to project the company’s new-found green image, aired shortly before DuPont was named by the Environmental Protection Agency as the largest emitter of toxic waste in the US.

This was the story of marketing’s relationship to social and environmental issues. But in an age where greenwashing is called out – through the likes of CorpWatch and campaigns like Greenpeace’s #stopgreenwash – marketing and communications can no longer be about polishing reputations without substantive action. The days of talking the talk without walking the walk are coming to an end, as ‘purposewash’ has joined greenwash on the no-fly list. Marketing and communications, however, can play more positive roles in building trust and effecting change.

Edited extract from ‘Business on a Mission: How to Build a Sustainable Brand’ by Andy Last, reproduced with permission.

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