Myriam Sidibé: How Can You Put the Mission into Marketing?
‘Perspectives’ is a joint project of The Beautiful Truth and Leaders on Purpose. During the 5th annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit, The Beautiful Truth conducted interviews with influential corporate leaders and thought leaders. The goal was to gain insight into their perspectives on purposeful business and answer the question: what actions should our businesses take in the current historical context?
Professor Myriam Sidibé is Founder and Chief Mission Officer for Brands on a Mission, and author of the book of the same name.
Sidibé began her career as an engineer, building toilets and hand-washing facilities in refugee camps. She then spent 15 years at Unilever spearheading a movement to change the handwashing behaviour of one billion people globally, and holds a doctorate in public health focused on handwashing with soap. In 2020, Sidibé founded Brands on a Mission, a certified B Corp, to accelerate health and wellbeing impact across the world.
“This is where brands can really push the cultural agenda and get us to a more equal footing.”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
How can a company be purposeful through its marketing?
Marketing is a powerful tool to help your company’s purpose stick – and be a key competitive advantage.
Brands have the ability to shape social norms through their marketing. We’ve already seen the detrimental effects of this – just think of the impact brands have had; unhealthy food advertising raising obesity levels, or how brands have shaped the way we think about masculinity and women’s roles in society.
But we have an opportunity, and a duty, to use marketing as a force for good in the world. Today, some of the best brands in the world are those that stand for meaningful and progressive values. Effective marketing also means closer alignment with consumers; they’re no longer just buying your products – they’re buying your values, alignment and growth.
Marketers need to think of themselves as ‘Chief Mission Officers’ in order to be the ones to translate a brand’s purpose into a meaningful, actionable plan that delivers on impact.
How does an understanding of the consumer help to shape an impactful purpose?
I think that we are in a position where consumers, employees and companies alike all pursue progressive and inclusive values. In fact, I would love to evolve the term ‘consumer’ to ‘co-creator’, because of just how active they are in shaping the cultural agenda.
I spent 15 years at Unilever, where I spearheaded a movement to change the handwashing behaviours of one billion people globally. While there, I realised the power of the word ‘consumer’. It gave me the opportunity to answer questions like: ‘How can we make it desirable for a particular woman in Africa to wash her hands? What kind of soap does she want? What sort of fragrance?’ By positioning vulnerable communities as consumers rather than beneficiaries, brands can treat people with dignity while responding to aspirations with the choices needed to positively change behaviours. I found this to be empowering.
“With the internet, everything one does is out in the open; one can’t stand for something and not walk the talk.”
How can brands start their journey of driving impact towards social causes?
A real driver for companies is sales and shareholder growth, but committing to social causes takes long term commitment, and so the two are not always so well aligned. We’re seeing a lot of words being thrown around – mission, purpose – but the reality is that very few of these companies are really translating that into real impact.
My book lays out a roadmap for brands to bridge the divide between what they say and what they do to truly drive impact. I’ve translated that framework into my company, Brands on a Mission, that supports brands in their transformative business model work.
Marketing is about trying to create a differentiation from your competitors. We’re trying to convince leaders that if you take a stand for social causes that are positive and progressive, you will have a better and more distinct alignment with your consumers.
Why is it important for businesses to commit to and persevere with a social cause?
Consumers have the power to keep brands accountable. A company can’t stand for a social issue and not follow through with actions. If brands miss the mark and use purpose only as a positioning tool, they risk their efforts being labelled as ‘purpose-washing’.
In addition, if they try to stand for every world issue, they jeopardise the authenticity and nuance these conversations need. And with the internet, everything one does is out in the open; one can’t stand for something and not walk the talk.
What impact can values-driven marketing have on the world?
Some companies have so much power – in terms of budget, some are even bigger than some countries – and so they have a responsibility to our world. And with that responsibility is also an incredible opportunity.
Leaders have to believe they can change the world for the better. If leaders change their mindset, we can tackle some of the world’s biggest problems to shape a society where nobody is discriminated against, in which women are seen as equal to men, where we respect sexual orientations and differences and more. I believe by harnessing the power of brands we can really push the cultural agenda and move towards a more equitable world.