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Aaron Kwittken: Unilever & Patagonia are building a brand on purpose while Wayfair goes wayward
Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope recently announced a plan to continue to "dispose" of any brands that lack social purpose. Patagonia recently said it would stop producing co-branded apparel for companies that don’t share its environmental practices and ethos. The brand had become popular with Wall Street bros and corporates who proudly adorned themselves with Patagonia Nano Puff as their office uniform. Patagonia also made headlines when it announced it would donate the $10m Trump tax credit back to the environment.
These are just two small examples of well-known, well-regarded companies who deliberately place social purpose at its core and at the heart of its business models. Some say Unilever made the pivot towards purpose having been inspired by its Ben and Jerry’s acquisition. Patagonia, on the other hand, was founded squarely, proudly and unapologetically on purpose by Yvon Chouinard in 1973. Regardless, both companies and their leadership teams have hero status with me.
There’s a shared and underreported theme that lies beneath the surface of these two companies. Valour. Audacity. Courage. Resolve.
Unilever and Patagonia both have, will, and will continue to face some criticism for their choices to pursue purpose alongside profit. Taking a stand on important issues and making business decisions to support these issues may alienate a few customers here and there. But both companies also know that it’s better to steadfastly stand for something, anything, while other brands are content playing the role of willful, tone-deaf bystander. Consumers today want to buy from good companies, not just good products.
It's also a known fact that doing the right thing is actually good for business. ESG-led, publicly listed companies now outperform the market as do companies that have more diverse and inclusive leadership teams and workforces. It’s true for Unilever too. According to a recent announcement by Unilever, last year 28 of what it classifies as “sustainable living brands” – those taking action to support positive change for people and the planet – grew 69% faster than the rest of its business. Bravo.
It’s not just Unilever of course. P&G has been dabbling in purpose with its wildly successful “Like a Girl” campaign for the Always brand. It hoped lightning could strike twice by releasing a ‘toxic masculinity” campaign earlier this year for the Gillette brand. It was an epic overreach and epic fail for many reasons. I do, however, like the documentary film P&G just released (in time for Pride month) which details the challenges faced by a group of former and current P&G LGBT+ staff in the early 90s who fought for greater equality in their workplace.
Not every company can match Patagonia’s tax donation, let alone follow in its footsteps. And not every organization is in a position like Unilever to start dropping brands or products that don’t meet the “purpose criteria.” There are, however, a lot of brands out there talking about purpose and these two brands are setting a path for others to follow, proving that it doesn’t mean sacrificing growth or profit. It’s just the opposite.
And some companies, like the US-based retailer Wayfair, blindly choose to ignore its conscience even under employee and investor duress. Wayfair employees this week asked their CEO to stop selling beds to detention centers. Wayfair’s billionaire CEO, co-founder and son of immigrants himself, Niraj Shah, said “we believe it is our business to sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate.”
This week I launched Brand on Purpose, a podcast dedicated towards speaking with senior leaders, entrepreneurs and investors from both well-known and emerging purpose-driven companies about how authentically engaging in social impact initiatives can elevate both brands and the communities they serve. Organizations that understand the inherent value of centering their identity around social purpose have a tremendous opportunity to differentiate themselves and impact the communities and people they serve. By showcasing brands and programs that support social justice and well-being, such as sustainability, clean water and fighting hunger and poverty, I hope that Brand on Purpose promotes larger conversations around how working toward a greater purpose unites us and inspires action while at the same time running a performative business.
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