“Purpose is now the superpower,” says Verity London’s Debra Sobel

Debra Sobel, co-founder and managing director of Verity London talks about the importance of social purpose and she explains why being a purposeful business is good for the bottom line …

Written by Georgie Dobie

Posted 24.08.2020 | Business

“Purpose is now the superpower,” says Verity London’s Debra Sobel thumbnail

What is social purpose? And, more to the point, why should toy companies be concerned with social purpose? TNP.MEDIA's Georgie Dobie sat down with Debra Sobel, co-founder and managing director of Verity London (a purpose-driven strategic communications agency), to find out more. 

What is social purpose?  

Social purpose is all about how organisations make a positive impact on society, but in a way that is completely integrated and aligned with the core business of the company – and which we always say unashamedly contributes to long-term business growth. A company being a purposeful business is good for the bottom line. It builds sustainable growth and it should build business longevity because there are multiple benefits. It gives an organisation a purpose beyond profit.  

Social purpose goes beyond Corporate Social Responsibility, which is great, but this is post CSR. This is where it is truly embedded at the very heart of a company and it makes sense, because this is aligned with what the company is really good at and has expertise in.  

How can businesses align social purpose with profit making? 

There needs to be purpose with profit. And I think that to separate the two is wrong, because businesses are there to make a profit. However, it is understanding that if you embed an authentic purpose in the very core of your business, that becomes your North Star. Every decision – all the governance, leadership, activities, the supply chain, and how a company treats its employees – is based off of that North Star. And that core purpose allows an organisation to create more meaningful connections with employees and a deeper relationship with consumers, drive positive social change, and build the sustainable growth.  

There are plenty of figures out there which show that companies that have a higher sense of purpose have a higher brand valuation. Deloitte found that purposeful businesses grow three times faster than their competitors and are more likely to be profitable (Deloitte Insights, 2019).    

And Kantar Consulting’s Purpose 2020 report stated that: “Brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation. Increase of 175 per cent over the past twelve years, compared to the median growth rate of 86 per cent and a 70 per cent growth rate for brands with a low sense of purpose.” 

What would be the first steps that businesses would have to take when looking at social purpose?  

First of all, you need to understand the business case. You need to understand how purpose can help build the bottom line. And if you want buy-in from leadership and you want leadership to drive it, the business case for purpose needs to be solid.  

We have a three-step core Process on Purpose.  

The first step is Purpose 101, which is where we speak to senior leadership from across the company to assess where that company is at in terms of purpose. We also do some competitor analysis. 

Then we move into the Purpose Lab. That’s where we work through our social purpose model canvas to uncover a brand’s unique purpose positioning. Each company is encouraged to look at its heritage, the founder’s aspirations, its supply chain, the exact types of product that it sells, the consumers and the markets that it sells to, as well as the societal issues and social problems within the target audience. This builds a picture that is unique to that particular organisation. Each organisation will arrive at its own unique social purpose and way that it can make a positive impact on society. This is also where we develop a roadmap for delivery, and there are always actionable points. Lots of companies have lovely sounding purposeful straplines. But if there’s nothing underneath it – if your employees don’t know what you stand for, if you don’t live it, and you don’t carry out any activities underneath it, and it’s not embedded into your governance or policies and you don’t talk about it to consumers – it doesn’t really exist. 

From the Lab, we move clients into our Purpose Hub. That’s where we develop purposeful communication strategies and plans for content and campaigns. It’s here where we consider how we’re going to talk about purpose in an authentic way and we look at the activities and campaigns we’re going to run that completely tie into the purpose. And then we look at how we’re going to benchmark it, we set the KPIs, and we determine what success is going to look like for us, as well as deciding on an appropriate way to continually monitor and analyse success.  

Why should companies in the toy industry be concerned with the idea of social purpose? 

I think companies in every industry should be concerned with social purpose.  

Particularly in the wake of a pandemic: Purpose is now the superpower. Purpose guides a company – especially in times of crisis, in times of economic recession, and now when we have seen growing consumer demand and growing employee expectations – companies need to stand up and say what they stand for. Companies need to say that they are willing to invest in the future, that they want to look after their employees, add value to their customers, deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers and really support the communities in which they operate.  

I think there is such growing consumer expectation for brands to make a positive impact on society. And I think those companies that are making a positive impact during these challenging times will be remembered in the long-term. They’re the ones who are creating that better future for the communities in which they operate.  

Coupled with that is really generating sustainable long-term value for shareholders.  

In its Covid-19 Barometer Study, Kantar said that 77 per cent of the consumers surveyed, said that they would like to hear brands talk about how they’re making a difference in the new everyday.  

And Consumer Survey Insight found that 72 per cent of consumers said that they would boycott a company based on how they acted during the pandemic.  

Are there any other reasons why purpose should be a key consideration for businesses? 

Purpose drives recruitment and attracts top talent.  

The companies that have really looked after their employees during lockdown will be remembered and people will want to work for them moving forward.  

Plus, particularly for Gen Z and Millennials, but also for most people, there is a desire for their work to be meaningful. It also allows companies to develop deeper and more meaningful connections with stakeholders and consumers, and such authentic, empathetic conversation can increase loyalty and engagement. 

Where do you currently see there to be opportunities in the toy industry when looking at social purpose?  

I think there is huge potential in the toy industry to talk about and take on mental health. It is such an important growing area at the moment, particularly during lockdown. We have seen an increase in conversations around emotional wellbeing, spending quality time together as a family, balancing work and life all under the one roof, keeping people motivated, and people’s aspirations for the future.  

And then you’ve got to think about disadvantaged families, particularly struggling during these times, and the positive impact that toys and games can have.  

Lego has been doing some fantastic work in terms of social purpose, particularly during lockdown. Lego’s central purpose is to leave a positive impact on the world that the children of today will inherit. Lego provides children with bricks to inspire and build the future they want to see. For Lego, everything then hangs off of that statement. So, as long as that statement then has activity, which can be measured, where there are set KPIs, and you’re reporting on impact and communicating those stories, suddenly Lego doesn’t just make plastic bricks. Lego makes a positive impact on the world, where children can be inspired for tomorrow.  

Or if you look at Mattel, who believe in the ‘Power of Play’, again, they’re also nurturing future generations. It’s about having a purpose that is inspirational, aspirational, and genuinely makes a difference.  

The teams at Mattel behind Barbie, Thomas the Tank Engine and Fisher-Price have run some great initiatives, tackling societal issues and engaging children from a really early age.  

Hasbro too is a company that is committed to making the world a better place. They did the ‘Be Fearless, Be Kind’ campaign a couple of years ago.  

How could retailers encourage people to continue shopping locally once lockdown completely lifts, by tapping into social purpose?  

I think a first step – and we do this in our ‘Purpose TalkShops’ – is consumer led purpose thinking. And I think, for retailers, it is about really understanding what consumers want from them now. There has been such a massive consumer behaviour shift – and culture shift – during this pandemic. People are buying in different ways, people are needing different things, and I think it’s so important to really listen to consumers and gain an understanding of what they want and what is worrying them. When it comes to developing a purpose, it’s being able to say: “We’re aligning with you, we’re collaborating with you, and we want to know what societal issues we can help solve.” 

It’s also about partnerships with local charities, local groups, schools, and consumers, where relevant, in order to actually become a real force for good.  

Toy companies have a really big responsibility, because toys can really change children’s imaginations, build confidence, encourage aspirations, and teach them core skills for life.  

Amid the outbreak, what do companies need to be careful of when it comes to building social purpose into their plans? 

Companies need to be very careful that any purpose they build into their plans is authentic. You can’t just develop a strapline and jump on the purpose bandwagon. That’s really dangerous. And I have seen brands develop ad hoc purposeful activity during lockdown and that’s to be encouraged, because they pivoted and reacted quickly. But what I would now like to see is for any future ad hoc purposeful activity to be grounded in strategy and truly embedded into the core of a company. And for that reason, I think purpose needs to come from leadership – it can’t just come from marketing. It needs to be aligned with what you do as a company, as well as aligned with customers’ values. It should inform product innovation, steer investment towards social cause, programmes, partnerships, et cetera.  

And given the pressures on companies at the moment, purpose may not currently be something that is at the forefront of business leaders’ minds – it’s health and safety, getting people back to work, and getting businesses back up and going again and reconnect with consumers.  

But within all of that, companies may not want to reimagine their entire business around purpose. So we’ve actually just introduced something we called ‘Purpose Sprint’, based on design sprint methodology. Within as little as three to five days we can pull a small team together in an organisation to come up with one purposeful thing that we can activate. We look for a challenge that people in the target audience are currently facing, which the company is in a position to solve. So it’s quick-win purposeful activity. A brand doesn’t have to go all-out and change absolutely everything that they do, from the core outwards. Companies can take little steps to be purposeful as well.  

How can companies ensure their purposeful activity is seen as genuine? 

A lot of brands are often nervous about announcing any kind of purpose, because they are worried about being accused of purpose washing, or a lack of authenticity. But actually, it depends on how a company communicates its purpose. It’s about communicating that you’re beginning your journey towards purpose, and this is what you would like to achieve – and this is what you’re doing to get there.  

Are there any companies that you have worked with in the toy industry? If so, could you tell us a bit about your work with them? 

The Happy Puzzle Company went through our Purpose Lab. We created a purpose strapline for them: Creating happiness, one puzzle at a time. And this is now allowing them to create more strategic partnerships and talk about happiness and the psychological wellbeing of children, families spending time together, as well as the importance of games. Realising their purpose opens up the conversation for all of these things – it allows them to have a voice on key societal issues that are important to their consumers.  

Gavin Ucko, the company’s founder and managing director, is quoted on our website as saying: “Discovering your Social Purpose is not about finding your USP. It’s about tunnelling through every aspect of what you do in order to find the absolutely beautiful picture which lies at the core of your business. Verity’s Purpose Programme needs to be seen as an investment and a journey. It’s a process that works. The brilliance of the programme is that you realise that your social purpose is sat in front of you every day, doing great things, yet not necessarily underlying your daily existence. I don’t think any of us expected to end up with the Social Purpose we did. It’s not something we could have achieved alone, but it has been priceless. I don’t think any of us could have foreseen how powerfully what we discovered would come to underpin everything that we do.” 

To get in touch with Debra and her team, please email info@veritylondon.co.uk or call +44 (0)20 8445 8324

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