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How Can Thought Leadership Shape Meaningful Corporate Purpose?

What role can Thought Leadership play in shaping corporate purpose? Many organizations are embracing it, but not always in meaningful ways. This session delivered great advice on defining goals and mapping out purpose strategies. It also didn’t shy away from dissecting the failures of misused, miscommunicated, and under-researched purpose initiatives.

Andrew Newby, Director of Operations at iResearch Services, moderated a panel consisting of his colleague, Rachael Kinsella, the Editorial and Content Director at iResearch Services and Damian Low, the Senior Director of Digital & Insights at FTI Consulting.

The session was kicked off with Andrew’s first question: How can thought leadership connect to an organization’s purpose?

Involve all stakeholders at the outset

Getting all parts of the organization involved early was the advice from Damian. “Good thought leadership is something you can own and deliver on. If it starts with comms and ends on comms, it’s unlikely you’re going to land on that topic. It’s a team sport.”

Damian said that a few years ago he was working for a global pet care company on their sustainability strategy. The brand aimed to be the most sustainable in its industry, so the communications department went away to do thought leadership research.

After this exercise, the communications team revealed its crucial insight for turning this pet care brand towards sustainability: remove beef from all its products.

He continued: “Imagine being a comms person going back to the business and saying, ‘So the only thing we now need to do to deliver on our purpose is to remove beef’. Operations would be like, ‘Sorry, what?’ How many millions? How many hours? So, unless you get the business involved early, you’re either going to land on something that you can’t deliver, or can’t credibly own.”

Business buy-in

Damian then brought attention to the importance of ‘business buy-in’, pointing out that good thought leadership addresses a challenge or meets an opportunity. He also made the observation about UK financial organizations currently talking about housing and their main point being that more homes are needed, which is stating an obvious point. His criticism was that none of these organizations are looking at how they should change their business to deliver on that or provide solutions.

Damian recalled another questionable idea from a time when he worked at an entertainment brand that wanted to ‘make society fairer’. While that goal is indeed noble, he was astonished at one thought leader’s example of how they achieve this aim: “We pay our taxes and our competitors don’t.”

“So I said, ‘if you flip this on its head,” explained Damian, “you’re saying you abide by the law? That’s not a good thought leadership idea!’ So really scrutinize that you’re not saying something that isn’t business as usual.”

Rachael agreed. “I think it’s that balance between being aspirational and actually bearing some relevance to your business, and what your strategy is, what your objectives are, and not doing the two in isolation.”

Meaningful purpose

“How can we have meaningful purpose as well as profit?” asked Andrew, who went on to point out several brands that have managed to achieve these goals.

“There shouldn’t be a tension,” replied Damian. “Let’s be very simple. Business has a big role to play in saving the planet. I’m going to start meta; you can’t just have a profit, you have to have a purpose and change the world in a positive way.”

He added that, despite negativity from some corners of social media, objectively, the data from studies shows that the majority want businesses to deliver positive action.

Damian wanted us all to think about purpose in a broader sense, and not to fall prey to the current trend of highlighting climate concerns almost as if it is business as usual. While he acknowledged the environment is an important subject, he made the point that there are more areas where profit and purpose can work together.

Rachael pointed out that iResearch Services studies have shown that employees will work harder for companies with a purpose that aligns with their own values. She echoed Damian’s point that purpose needs to be broader than Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, and added that the focus needs to be on the wider ecosystem and the community.

This was neatly summed up by Andrew, as companies “conflating ‘not being bad’ with purpose!” 

Bringing in authenticity

Andrew asked the panel if the way organizations marketed themselves was too generic.

Damien stated that if someone is genuinely concerned about purpose, they look at how the business operates. Rachael believes that purpose has become a strategic imperative. It was clear from both panel members that they wanted a push towards authenticity.

When it comes to activating thought leadership across a company, Damian stressed that a lot of preparation is key, and that “you need really good data on your external audiences.” Rachael advised that listening to your customers and external stakeholders was crucial. This struck a chord with Damian, who noted that without doing the groundwork, you would be stuck ‘retrofitting’ an idea that was not going to work.

Stemming from the creation of a thought leadership project, Damian touched upon what should be happening towards its completion. He advised that while involving internal staff was important at the start for setting goals, it was also vital to listen to employees on how to use the content.

“Why don’t companies do this?” asked Andrew.

“It sits within comms,” said Damian. “It needs ownership across the business. An example is sustainability. I saw a study recently; I think about 30 of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) roles in the FTSE 100 sit under comms. Comms is part of how you address sustainability, it’s not the whole answer. So again, don’t just give it to one department. Let it sit with multiple people.”

Rachael agreed that thought leadership should be broken out of silos. “It’s not for a marketing exercise, it’s not for generating PR, it’s thought leadership for various different purposes, various objectives, and that’s where you’ve got to bring it all together.”

What makes companies re-evaluate their purpose?

The topic of re-evaluation came up, as Andrew asked the panelists what the catalysts are for this.

“Difficult times!” exclaimed Rachael, who cited various constraints and pressures, such as competitive growth, an explosion of content, and lack of differentiation. She stated the solutions lay in being authentic, supplying a human angle, and telling a unique story.

Food for thought

The next question would raise quite a few eyebrows. It concerned the public image of a top-hatted confectionery entrepreneur well known to the audience. Andrew had warned that he would be bringing up a fun question to test our panelists’ skills for corporate purpose, but nobody was quite prepared for this question.

“If you were in charge of re-establishing the identity of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, what would be your first priority?”

Damian stated that he would lead with the Oompa Loompas. He viewed them as a strong USP. Then he turned to converting employees into advocates.

“From what I remember of the film,” said Damian, referring to the more recent Johnny Depp version, “they were quite depressed and downtrodden. If you can get them engaged in the mission of making the chocolate, combined with the fact they’re blue and little, that is a seriously differentiated and engaged employee base that can sell your thought leadership for you.” 

Rachael got into the spirit, stating her reference was the 1970s Gene Wilder portrayal in the film of Roald Dahl’s book. Her priority would be to make the entire supply chain sustainable. She also expressed a wish to deploy employee support across the board, for the Oompa Loompas, and for Willy Wonka himself, because he is “pretty stressed”. Other issues raised were to examine why the children have behavioral issues and to see what healthier treat options could be offered.

Got talent?

When Andrew asked audience members for questions, the first that came in referenced an interactive poll that had been carried out during the session. Talent attraction and retention came very low on the list of “important goals for your purpose-driven thought leadership”, so the panel was asked for a potential reason.

Rachael empathized with the concern of talent attraction/retention issues and reiterated an earlier point, that studies show employees work harder for organizations that have an authentic purpose and operate sustainably and ethically.

Damian agreed and pointed out that if a company did not have a good industry reputation and suffered from low brand awareness, it would find it difficult to attract talent.

Another audience member wanted to know how to get buy-in for ‘the last mile’.

This enabled Damian to emphasize the importance of good thought leadership. He pointed out that studies show that Gen Z workers would take a lower-paid job if there was a credible purpose. He shared personal observations that Glassdoor data is now being cited in board meetings.

Rachael’s advice was to think in terms of competitiveness and revenue. A company with a clearly defined purpose should not be losing out on talent attraction. She believes there’s now more awareness of metrics other than shareholder value, such as a big push towards community, customers and employees, as evidenced in recent research.

When the ‘feel good’ turns bad

The next question from the audience concerned the lack of a clear, authentic purpose. They wanted to know how this situation could potentially mislead audiences and even damage reputations.

“I’ve always wanted to answer a question with these words,” replied Damian. “Kendall Jenner and Pepsi!” He admitted it may be an obvious example but added that we should never forget the damage it did to the brand and its value. He underlined the point that this is why authenticity matters and that this is a case of thought leadership being reduced to a marketing gimmick.

Tapping into another influencer from the Jenner/Kardashian dynasty, Rachael mentioned the example of fast fashion retail brand BooHoo using Kourtney Kardashian as a sustainability advocate.

Damian cited another recent example of a B2C marketing calamity, Bud Lite. He said while the gesture was “noble”, the brand did not do upfront research on its audience. The incident, he says, is a reminder as to why data and research are essential.

There was time for a final question from the audience: “Do you have any tips on starting a persuasive conversation with shareholders?”

A lot of passion was shown by Damian for data. “The more data you throw, the harder it is to challenge!” he said, but he warned that people will “still think they know best.” Then he referred to the previous answer to provide more advice – highlight examples in the industry where research has not been done and what has happened as a result.

“Thank you all very much indeed,” concluded Andrew. “In summary, be consistent, be genuine, do the work and listen!”

This was a fascinating session, which highlighted the importance of intensive preparation and the strong value of data. It also navigated the precarious paths to instigate positive social change. One common theme that came up was the need for organizations to properly listen to their target audience and not rely on the gut feelings of a few CEOs. This served as a brilliant reminder of the key principles of thought leadership.

Interested in watching the Building the Backbone of Purpose and Identity Through Thought Leadership session on-demand? Click here.   

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