How do you get purpose right on an international scale when values are not universal?

Not a month goes by without a new study proclaiming consumers want to shop from brands that “stand for something”. Meanwhile economists argue that companies with a social purpose perform better in the long term.

Corporations big and small have raced to respond. Earlier this year nearly 200 US chief executives, including the leaders of Apple, Pepsi and Walmart issued a statement trying the redefine the role of business in society. The new chief executive of Unilever has claimed brands that “don’t find their purpose” could be sold off.

Universal values
Brand purpose is values led. But how do you get purpose right on an international scale when values are not universal?

The Hong Kong protests have proven a litmus test for the authenticity of brand purpose for a number of multinational brands. Nike had positioned itself as a social justice warrior making headlines with its Colin Kaepernick Emmy winning ad, urging viewers to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Commercial drivers
But a year later, when the manager of Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the Hong- Kong pro-democracy demonstrations, Nike promptly removed the MBA basketball team’s merchandise from stores in China to avoid endangering sales in a major market.

The move prompted widespread accusations of hypocrisy with Mike Pence commenting, “When it comes to Hong Kong, Nike prefers checking its social conscience at the door”.

Apple has also long trumpeted its liberal and progressive credentials. Its famous motto has encouraged consumers to “Think Different”. One of its core values is empowering people through accessible technology. Yet it swiftly deleted an app that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track police movements and tear gas use, just a day after facing criticism from the Chinese state media for it.

The company was at pains to maintain that its “values remain the same in every country” and claimed the app violated its guidelines and Hong Kong laws. Commentators remained unconvinced accusing Apple of shelving its values to protect one of its most profitable markets.

Inconsistent messages
There are many such examples of inconsistent brand purpose around the world. Reebok’s feminist #BeMoreHuman campaign celebrated and empowered women, encouraging them to be strong and assertive and calling on them to bring positive change to the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not run anywhere in the Middle East.

Chick-fil-A used Christian, “traditional family” values to become the third-largest fast food chain in America. Those same values got it into trouble at the opening of a store in Canada and led it close its first and only branch in the UK a month ago, after protests and boycott calls by LGBT campaigners. The company is now halting donations to three groups that oppose same-sex marriage in an effort to broaden its customer base and promote international expansion. In an era of globalisation, companies can no longer operate in silos. Purpose that lands well on one side of the world can cause grave offense on the other.

So how do you get brand purpose right on an international scale?

Some marketing and communications professionals advise to “keep purpose broad” so it can be interpreted differently in different markets to tap into the issues that are most relevant there. That approach misses the point. In order to connect with consumers and differentiate a brand, its social purpose has to be specific; it needs to make a stand, not sound like a generic strap line.

Be clear
To avoid accusations of hypocrisy and reputational damage your brand’s actions also cannot contradict its stated purpose, no matter where you are in the world. Reputational risks like those faced by Apple can be mitigated with proper preparation and scenario planning.

Multinational business would be wise to be respectful of local values and culture. There is no need to proactively campaign on a values led purpose in markets where it is not likely to resonate with consumers. Brands operating on a global scale need global teams advising them.

But ultimately, picking a purpose means picking a side. If you stand for something, you must also stand against someone who disagrees. Purpose strategy therefore requires cost-benefit analysis and a long-term view – accepting the trade-offs as the price of building stronger relationships with the customers, influencers, stakeholders and employees who matter most.

Believing in something is good business, but it will mean sacrificing something too.

Written by Maria Sizyakova, account director at agency MHP Communications

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