The role of marketing, staying true to brand purpose in inflationary times, the changing definition of innovation, and gearing up for a post-Covid reset were themes that dominated the discussion at the recently concluded #LeadersForGood roundtable in Singapore.
The discussion was marked by a candour and willingness to address prickly, challenging subjects head-on.
The purpose of ‘purpose’
Among the recurring themes at the roundtable was an in-depth discussion on purpose and how it affected business outcomes. While the most obvious manifestation of brand purpose is in advertising, it has also become an integral part of business models. Some of the world’s largest brand owners had made commitments in areas like sustainable sourcing and reducing the use of plastics.
But particularly in inflationary times, marketers were starting to find that purpose had a cost attached to it — one that needed to be borne, at least in part, by the end-consumer. Samir Singh, global CMO, personal care, Unilever, said, "We are among the companies that are completely rethinking our approach to packaging to use less, better or no plastic. But you need to talk about it and, in some cases, educate consumers. The new, more sustainable packs have to influence consumer purchase, and for that, brands need to do a much better job of communicating those benefits and make sustainability a source of competitive and business advantage. Only then will sustainability truly become embedded in the business model and not something companies do on the side.”
When Dove began to make extensive use of recycled plastic (100% PCR) for its packaging, consumers were made aware of the change via advertising for the brand. This resulted in more people choosing Dove and sustainability became part of the brand's business model.
Purpose was being linked very closely to growth even at fresh and packaged fruit firm Dole Sunshine Company. Global CMO and TS/28 founder Rupen Desai said, “If purpose isn’t making you grow, it's probably good cause marketing.” He added, “Every time you move the dial on purpose, you should also experience good sustainable growth — not profit at the cost of people, and not increasing inequality.”
However, during an economic downturn, consumer priorities change, particularly in emerging markets. "We must explore attitudes towards plastics and sustainability. Our consumers in Asia and low-income families are unwilling to spend a premium on sustainable packaging. They have a lot of other priorities,” said Singh.
“Our brands which reach billions of people, must navigate this. Companies like us need to help raise awareness in these markets and explain the critical need for consumers to take action while still making sustainable solutions affordable."
Innovation as a means and not a goal
The role of innovation in the marketing context was subject to a fair degree of scrutiny. There was a consensus that innovation needed to serve a purpose and not be an end, and that its pursuit had sometimes been a distraction.
Singh recommended that innovation be around the core of a company's offering. He said, "Having superior products, being able to talk about them with a higher purpose and integrating that with brilliant execution: those principles don't change. Within that, you must create new news and excitement for formats that are seemingly dull. That cuts out a lot of waste and energy being dissipated behind small efforts, which is a phenomenon I have seen across the world, especially in my industry. Five years ago, everyone predicted the death of all big brands. And lo and behold, after five years, these brands are growing at a fast rate."
It wasn’t just the world’s largest brands that were rethinking innovation. Speaking about the adoption of innovative approaches at Malaysia-based biscuit company Julie’s, director Sai Tzy Horng said, “I feel relieved not having to think about finding a new flavour that nobody else has.” Instead, the firm’s approach to innovation manifested in its advertising which ‘flipped the script’ — attempting to build conversations around the role of women in society in a light-hearted way. Or creating consumption occasions for what was a low-engagement product. Sai said, “It’s not like there are massive disco parties going on or social situations around biscuits. We should create experiences or find rituals that exist. For instance, biscuits in office pantries are usually paired up with coffee, allowing people more time to meet colleagues and bond. We've recently partnered with other food businesses as well and are looking for such moments.”
At Mondelez, Sindhuja Rai, global media investment and AMEA CX lead was clear that her company was more focused on finding universally applicable approaches, rather than pursuing innovation as an end. She said, “Over the last three years, we've tried to build a culture of doing things at a small scale, with a focus on test and learn. And then scaling up quickly — not just within a market or business unit but to other markets in the region. Marketers become more open to sharing and learning from each other. The only way you're able to keep up is not to try and do everything yourself. But instead, building communities where you are partnering with others and learning from each other.”
Questioning the role of marketing
The transformation in the role of marketing was one of the subjects that Siew Ting Foo, CMO, HP, Greater Asia was grappling with. She said, “Within the organisation, expectations have shifted. We have been taking a human-centric approach. We look at the role of marketing as something that equates growth in a multifaceted way across multiple stakeholders: whether it’s the impact on consumers, employees, investors or the planet.”
How marketing adds value to life was also a conundrum for Karen Ngui, managing director and head, group strategic marketing and communications, DBS. After an intense period of disruption brought about by rapid digitalisation and exacerbated by Covid-19, as well as new entrants to financial services, DBS stopped considering only traditional banks as competition.
Ngui said, “We are leveraging technology to think and function like a startup and so our role as marketers and communicators must change. We must appreciate the technical aspects of data-led decision making and embrace new-gen marketing techniques, and yet not lose a handle on creativity. The biggest challenge is seamless integration of the analytics and creative components, to gain insights into how best to cut through and differentiate ourselves, as we strive to effectively communicate what we stand for as a brand.
A similar questioning was afoot at Haleon, formerly the consumer division of GSK, which was recently launched as a distinct entity. Silas Lewis-Meilus, global head of media business units, said: “At GSK, Consumer Healthcare was part of a family — one division of three. At times, Consumer Healthcare’s voice was perhaps not the only voice of GSK. As a science-led organisation, our communication was rooted in very specific claims about what our products can do and how efficacious they are. In becoming a new distinct organisation in Haleon, there was a need to infuse our functional messaging with humanity, taking a people-centric view, rather than one focused on products and clinical superiority.”
The accountability of the marketing function was another area of concern. Dole Sunshine’s Desai cited a recent conversation with PepsiCo CMO Jane Wakely, and
said, “We don’t even have a common set of data measurement on how marketing spends are effective. Most CFOs say this is how the P&L runs; this is how EBITDA is measured; and so, this is or isn’t successful. It hit me like a punch — none of us across organisations have similar, shared measures on brand spends effectiveness. If we can't do that, as an industry, we may constantly keep tripping on our own invented or interpreted data.”
The post-pandemic reset
Another issue that marketers confessed to be grappling with was dealing with the lingering fallout of the pandemic. They had to navigate a path between being mindful about new norms when it came to work culture and mental health, while at the same time capitalising on the commercial possibilities in a world making a rapid return to normalcy.
Visa’s head of marketing for Asia-Pacific, Danielle Jin, was clear that work across the industry had been adversely impacted by the mindset shift during the pandemic. She said, “I was in Cannes in June (for the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity), and I see the variety and diversity of quality work suffered during pandemic. It’s because of that mindset shift — conserving energy for a longer run of the pandemic. We are facing a challenge in shifting out of that phase.” The need of the hour was for marketing professionals to dream big, celebrate growth, and the return to normal. But Jin said, “That shift of momentum and mindset has not happened as positively or as fast as I would’ve hoped.”
At Twitter too, there was a challenge around building culture without a full complement of staff in attendance. The social networking platform’s managing director for Southeast Asia Mitchell Kreuch said, “Among the things that are lacking, has been day-to-day serendipitous contact. We all took it for granted until our day became a series of pre-set segments of 30 to 60 minutes.” Twitter was negotiating the balance between wanting teams back in the office — built to be places which employees loved to go to — while being cognisant of the desire of many staffers to not get back.
However, there were some green shoots of recovery. Kreuch said, “My team from Indonesia came to Singapore and they got so much done in two days — just by being in the office, running into people, sitting down and exchanging ideas.”