Staff Writer
Jul 12, 2021

How CMOs can be a force for change when defining brand purpose

At a roundtable hosted by Campaign and Twitter, Asia’s top marketing leaders speak candidly about avoiding ‘woke-washing’, living with controversy, and balancing real-world impact and long-term profit.

How CMOs can be a force for change when defining brand purpose
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More than ever, marketers must walk the talk. While consumers increasingly expect brands to display purpose, they also expect brands to remain authentic by taking meaningful action from the top down.

In a fast-moving world, marketers now find themselves being held accountable for creating consistent messaging about their brand’s impact on society across diverse markets.

At the same time, fostering trust is becoming make or break for brands. 70% of people think trusting a brand is more important today than in the past, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. A further 74% say a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more critical.  

The 2021 APAC Power List celebrates Asia-Pacific's 50 most influential and purposeful marketers, as chosen by the editorial team at Campaign Asia-Pacific, and presented in partnership with Twitter as part of their global #LeadersforGood initiative.

At a dynamic roundtable hosted by Campaign Asia in collaboration with Twitter and moderated by Robert Sawatzky, editorial director of Campaign, some of Asia’s top marketing leaders from the Power List offered insights on how exactly trust is needed to enact brand purpose with authenticity, and how to gain traction in brand purpose efforts. 

During a candid and open session, the leaders also shared some of the common challenges they face as they look to 2022 together.

What is the point of purpose? Virtue vs value

“Purpose is not linked to Covid; purpose is ever-present. You can't choose to ‘do’ purpose because it's the fashion of the day,” said Arvinder Gujral, managing director of Southeast Asia for Twitter, as he welcomed everyone to the conversation. 

While purpose is vital to consumers, the many leaders agreed their biggest challenge around fostering brand purpose is public scepticism. Quite often, brands are readily accused of woke-washing, green-washing or rainbow-washing if their purpose is not aligned with actions.

“A brand has to be very clear about their purpose if they want to be authentic about it. Not every brand has the right to do it,” says Sindhuja Rai, global media investment lead and AMEA CX lead at Mondelez. “A lot of times, marketers get very excited by something that is part of a new cultural narrative, and they want to embrace it. But the brand has to have the right to be able to do that. If you're genuine, consumers will look at it differently.”

Rupen Desai, CMO at Dole Sunshine Co., agrees that “purpose should never become a ‘lazy substitute’ for positioning, a replacement for CSR or stay purely as an advertising or PR brief. This could lead to more brands getting it wrong, rather than right.”

Desai alluded to the growing pressures on brands and marketers not to misstep on being authentic. “Consumers are very intelligent, and they’re pretty active in taking and tearing inauthenticity apart,” he says. “So be careful if you are being unauthentic. A single tweet can tear your effort apart.”

Many leaders agreed that they often feel the pressure to pitch every message in the perfect tone. Inevitably, however, there will come a time when criticism comes: warranted or otherwise. So how best to handle it? 

Consistency is critical, says Rai. “If the brand is authentic and is consistent about what they stand for, over time, consumers will also be able to acknowledge and embrace it. It’s when we jump from one thing to another as a brand that the problem starts happening."

Karen Ngui, managing director and head of group strategic marketing and communications at DBS, highlighted the bank’s ‘Portraits of Purpose’ initiative, which showcases stories of grit, hope, and resilience demonstrated during the pandemic – from healthcare workers on the frontlines, to businesses looking beyond the bottom-line to deliver social good, with DBS employees working tirelessly behind the scenes to help protect their customers’ lives and livelihoods. 

“It’s not just about storytelling, but about ‘story-doing,’” says Ngui. “These are real stories – depicting how, at DBS, we are driven by a strong sense of purpose and authenticity. We believe that when a connection between the head and heart is forged, trust and brand loyalty are further engendered.”

It’s important to remember that deriving purpose is intrinsically related to driving the profit engine, added Siew Ting Foo, CMO for Greater Asia at HP. “For brand purpose to be successful; it must not only reflect the needs of the customers, in terms of the products and the solutions and the brand campaigns that they bring alive, but also tie back to the capital market. So it’s about how the purpose lands itself in terms of the profit element and the corporate mission.”

 Getting comfortable with controversy 

Tina Pang, head of client solutions, Southeast Asia at Twitter, recalls seeing the bold and progressive #FreeToLove campaign from Unilever “torn apart” by users in specific markets on the platform. But, she says, if you are prepared, there are ways to deal with it. “The comms and PR teams were ready and they quickly jumped on it. I agree if we stick to the purpose, ultimately, it can work in favour of brands. #FreeToLove was embraced when it launched in the Philippines, and people continue to talk about it to today.”

Sapna Chadha, senior country marketing director for India and SEA at Google, called upon fellow marketers to lean into the prospect of periodic backlash. “I think we’re in this new world where we need to get comfortable with it,” she says. “If we are too fearful, we don't take any steps forward in this world. We can't let the environment hold us back from saying the important things.”

YoeGin Chang, global senior brand director for SK-II, agrees: “It's very true that once you pick up that fire and have that controversy, actually, in the end, it works for you.”

Gujral pointed to Nike’s campaign and endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick, which was launched on Twitter. “In the first six hours of that campaign, the comments were more negative than positive. The former president of the United States also leaned in with a big public statement …  same-month sales were up 50-60%. They increased their market cap by US$3 billion in 30 days with one campaign.” 

When brands decide how to wrestle with the challenges of today, CMOs are increasingly the first to be tapped to demonstrate what the brand stands for while joining the dots from purpose to product to profit. As a result, the role of the CMO is widening. 

“When there is a crisis, which happens every week, marketing is being pulled to the table more than I've ever felt in my career,” says Chadha. “That is a great place to be, but at the same time, the stakes are higher – whether it’s Covid, the environment, diversity and inclusion, racial equity, gender equality … it’s great to feel the important role of marketing, but there’s a challenge around aligning on what is important. How do you say any of these things are not important?”

Desai turned the perspective around at this juncture, calling out companies who claim to have purpose without living it through their corporate belief system or business model – gaining nods of agreement.

“We should avoid words like ‘purpose-led campaign’ because it reeks of more talk and less walk,” he says. “I think when you want to be #purposeful, you have to impact people, communities and the planet, at scale. If a company talks up purpose at one end and say finds ways to get away without paying taxes at the other, that by itself is not being purposeful – because you are being crafty and avoiding the benefit of the larger society at large.”

Desai argues that such companies could make a difference via a different mantle. “Purpose might be a big word, and if your business practices don’t match your talk, maybe it should be different - maybe it’s CSR efforts or being belief driven, or something else.

Lynette Pang, assistant chief executive (marketing group) at Singapore Tourism Board, concurs, “Purpose does not belong to the marketing department. It belongs to the organization.  It defines why an organization exists and is the brand’s reason for being. It should not be used carelessly and lightly in a marketing campaign for positioning purposes.  Most importantly, the product needs to live up to what it proclaims, the difference made needs to be real and tangible.”

The word ‘purpose’ is simply overused, states Chadha. “You could argue it's a selfish word to some extent. It's about your mission. It's about your company's approach and what you stand for. Whereas the word 'trust' is not being used enough, I think. Because purpose leads to trust, right?”

We see brands as human. But are they trustworthy? 

The availability of data has led to a rise in performance marketing across many brands and agencies and is changing the way consumers are targeted. As a result, brands can increasingly take a holistic view of how each element of a campaign contributes to a sale. 

“We do brand campaigns for people who are not currently looking to buy cars,” says Nirmal Nair, vice president marketing for ASEAN at Nissan. “But I want them to understand who we are and why we do what we do and what values we stand for. To create a connection with them, so then later on when some of them start to think about purchasing a car, they will put us into their basket. We would love to be in their mind when they start thinking about cars and thus go back to them with the kind of products that could fit their lifestyle. This approach has really helped structure the funnel and focus more on creating trust with prospects.”

Perhaps this is one of the real motivators for deriving purpose: achieving a blend of long-term profit and real-world impact. This is a concept that Nissan has already built into its modelling.

“If I stopped advertising tomorrow for a period, my sales would not drop,” says Nair. “We have modelled how much of the ‘base’ opinion of our brand will carry forward to the next period’s sales. We've tested it, and it works. So the key thing is to keep on building that base; growing that trust or opinion to build long-term sustainability so that we don't have to rely on short-term tactics to drive the sale today.”

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