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Why purpose driven businesses attract more criticism


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A natural consequence of getting older is the realisation that backing the “right moral cause” doesn’t necessarily win friends and influence people. In fact, sometimes it can do quite the opposite.

Disrupting things for the “common good” can even put a price on your head.  

If a man of the stature of Martin Luther King can have liberal opponents at the height of the civil rights movement, then you can bet your life that whatever purpose you stand for, the criticism with come from every which way. What’s more, it will come from friends and enemies alike.

From Tesla to Gillette and from Cadbury to Laura Ashley, companies have lost the moral high ground for a number of different reasons. PR mistakes, powerful competitors, or just a misplaced purpose that doesn’t resonate with the brand’s customers. Purpose is a fine line to tread and the sands can easily shift.

Tesla’s founder Elon Musk was already facing a storm from powerful players invested in the status quo when he famously fell from grace with the “Pedo tweet”. Gillette recently created an advert that left a huge backlash while Cadbury never quite regained its wholesome quaker, high quality, worker championing reputation after the Kraft takeover. Laura Ashley meanwhile, never moved it’s wifely image with the feminist times and got left behind in the process. https://hbr.org/1999/07/why-good-companies-go-bad

Don’t we just love to bring down the self-proclaimed hero or heroine? What is it about human nature that draws us to do this? Is it just good old Schadenfreude that makes us joyful at the fallen? Is it just that it’s a bigger story to bring down the god fearing priest rather than the self-proclaimed Lothario? Or is there something deeper going on?

As humans we often seem to search for an easy, cartoon style dichotomy and we struggle with nuanced characters. These days working out the baddies from the goodies is actually harder than ever. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_makes_a_hero. Philip Zimbardo, the world-renowned psychologist (perhaps best known for his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) says, “[A]..key insight from my research has been that there’s no clear line between good and evil. Instead, the line is permeable; people can cross back and forth between it.” 

And boy, are we sucked into the news story when they do!

Meanwhile, in today’s media jet-washed, squeaky clean world we are lacking the main quality of leadership – authenticity.

Unfortunately, these days our leaders are incentivised to be less authentic in order to avoid the media backlash should they say something “wrong” or be caught “dancing to the wrong tune..” as Teresa May was said to have done. This makes purpose driven entrepreneurs (and politicians for that matter) arguably more courageous than ever before if they step outside of societal norms to give an opinion that swims against the tide. Reputation damage is the new death blow. At the same time, the Gillette advert and other similar contentious campaigns, have perhaps left the consumer more distrustful of the purpose-led narrative overall.

So is this all just rather depressing or is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Well maybe there is. The existence of this opposition may actually be doing purpose-driven entrepreneurs some good! Take Gareth Southgate’s England experiences as an example from Sport. On the one hand he was once the most jeered at man in football. Today? – Today he is the hero and an archetypal leader. This is apparently known as “Adversarial Growth” (http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/3626/)

“A number of studies have shown that extremely negative, stressful experiences  actually lead to  positive psychological outcomes. ..positive cognitive abilities like efficiency of cognitive processing, problem solving and acceptance, optimism etc can all be enhanced by experiencing and dealing effectively with negative, stressful experiences.” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2018/jul/06/zero-to-hero-the-psychological-benefits-of-gareth-southgates-experience)

Furthermore, the people with the most critics are often the ones with the most passionate and vocal advocates too. Take Elon Musk as a good example. His car doesn’t even need advertising https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/tesla-paid-advertising/310008/. Why is that? Because Tesla have created a sales force bigger than any other – its customers.

As businesses looking for our voice, we should therefore

embrace authenticity and purpose and go out into the unknown with courage.

This is what leading people do and from the statistics it appears that this is what leading companies do. “According to New York Times bestselling author Simon Mainwaring, 91% of consumers would switch brands if a different one was purpose-driven and had similar price and quality.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/hayleyleibson/2018/01/25/the-power-of-purpose-driven/#a213d9c5dca6

So as we reflect on the nature of purpose (and indeed it’s worth) we should perhaps accept that we may not convince everyone of our brand’s wider virtues. Indeed we may attract opposition and even downright animosity towards our organisations. However, if we stick to the truth of who we are, our values and what our companies were built to do. Then, I am willing to wager we will fly rather than falter. And.. if we don’t fly as far as we’d hoped? Well, knowledge and friends are certainly a good launchpad in the new disrupted economy.

Stephanie Chamberlain is CEO & Founder of Magic Milestones a company that helps large organisations keep their product roadmaps agile yet in line with their strategy & purpose. www.magicmilestones.com