Are Communicators Missing Brand Purpose?

Our stakeholders want us to help on big societal issues. Communicators should be taking the lead on brand purpose (image source: Lokus Design)

Sometimes, well most of the time, we should listen more. Listen without bias, and just sit there and take in what others are saying. This is especially true at conferences, where there’s lots being said but few people listening. I’m can be guilty of not taking my own advice, and this equally applies to me.

Let me explain. The good people of PRovoke (formerly the Holmes Report) held their annual PRovoke MENA event last week. And they asked me to be part of a panel on brand purpose. The idea of brand purpose matters personally to me; I’ve worked for a number of not-for-profits, and I’ve seen how much it matters to a cause when a business steps in to help. And then there’s the bigger picture; given what’s happening in the world around us, the public are demanding that businesses do more on societal issues.

To me, brand purpose isn’t a buzzword. It’s a realization that there’s more to the business world than profit. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect everything to be well if we’re not tackling environmental issues, inequality, poverty or any of the Sustainable Development Goals.

I know that brand purpose isn’t still widely understood or put into practice here, but even I was shocked by what I saw. When we kicked off the panel, I asked the audience of 150 communicators if brands here were doing enough to tackle big societal issues. Only one hand went up. This single vote was even worse in the context of the day’s agenda. The first panel was packed with the country’s biggest brands, talking about how their presence had grown globally. The panel prior to the brand discussion was all about the region’s youth and what they wanted to see in business.

“We want to see brands making more of an impact but we can’t expect a global brand to be 100% ethical overnight,” said Middlesex University student Cham Alatrach who was part of the youth panel. “Small strides do matter. That way you can see the process and what goes behind it. The youth want to see a change, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

An Issue that Communicator Should Own

As far as I’m concerned, brand purpose should be our cause. Many communicators also include corporate social responsibility in their role, and it’s easy to see why. We engage with stakeholders, we listen to their issues as part of a wider dialogue, and we look to see how we can support their needs. Brand purpose is a natural extension of CSR in many ways. It also matters to employees (it’s the basis of employer branding), and so should be seen as part of internal communications.

My concern is that we’ll miss the boat when it comes to brand purpose, like we did during the introduction of social media. This was an idea based on engagement and dialogue, and yet everyone jumped in, from creatives to media buyers, marketers and even customer support.

How Agencies Can Add Value

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a company that was a pioneer in cause marketing. P&G has been brilliant in creating brands that serve a greater good. For an example of this, look at Pampers-UNICEF and the work this partnership has undertaken to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus.

One aspect of my job with P&G which I’ve enjoyed more than anything else has been the opportunity to create new cause ideas. And this is where agencies can add real value, by understanding what’s happening outside the client’s offices/world, looking at the potential to partner with a charity, and make a real impact on a big issue.

I’d pay an agency good money to give me ideas that would contribute to my brand’s purpose. For me, that’s valuable and strategic. And yet, who was coming up with new concepts? It was the creatives. We’ve got to change this.

It’s About Our Reputation Too

One final thought for all of us. The public relations industry has been maligned for years; we’ve been described as spin doctors, as unethical. For me, I’ve always believed that good communications benefits everyone. And brand purpose goes beyond saying, and focuses on the doing, which is at the core of reputation building. Our actions must speak louder than our words, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to leave the office and head home knowing that me and my company have supported a big issue, and contributed to positive change.

I want us all to lead on brand purpose. If you’re struggling with this issue (one of the big challenges is how to win over management), please do reach out to me, and I’ll do my best to help.

The State of Sustainability in MENA – A Podcast with Monaem Ben Lellahom

The research undertaken by Monaem’s team at Sustainable Square gives us the first comprehensive picture into sustainability practices across the region.

Sustainability is such an important part of the work of many firms today, and yet there’s never been a piece of research that seeks to give us a sense of how the practice is doing in the MENA region. That’s no longer the case, thanks to the work undertaken by Sustainable Square. I sat down with the co-founder Monaem Ben Lellahom to talk about what’s happening in the sustainability space and how firms are doing when it comes to alignment with the SDGs, across industries and by regions.

You can read the full report here. In the meantime, enjoy the podcast and let me know if you have any questions for Monaem!

Coca-Cola, tackling prejudice & swapping television advertising for digital and CSR this Ramadan

Is Coca-Cola's anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

Is Coca-Cola’s anti-prejudice message a winner this Ramadan?

A global icon and the brand that defined Christmas has been making waves this Ramadan. Coca-Cola, which spent $3.3 billion on advertising globally in 2013, made a surprise announcement this Ramadan through its Egyptian subsidiary. Instead of spending sizable sums of money on television spots during Ramadan, which is the peak viewing season, the Egyptian operation would only spend money on paid digital spots on Facebook and YouTube. To quote from the company’s press release (please do excuse the hyperbole, the writer was probably on a sugar rush whilst penning this):

This festive season Coca Cola is giving back to the Egyptian community by replacing their always hotly-anticipated television ads with a unique campaign against prejudice rolling out exclusively on digital media. Their TV ad budget is instead being poured into their project of developing 100 villages. In recent days they have also galvanised Egypt’s digital population, pledging that for every post featuring a finger raised against prejudice (symbolising one extra second) they will donate one additional pound to their project.

While the idea of saving advertising money by pulling television ads and using that budget to spend on CSR is different to say the least, especially for a household brand such as Coca-Cola (and, which, in any case isn’t true as Coca-Cola has spent heavily on pan-Arab television advertising), the notion of tackling prejudice is an interesting angle for Coca-Cola to take.

Coca-Cola has launched a number of video shorts for YouTube and Facebook about prejudice, with the key tag line that we should look beyond the seven seconds it takes to form an opinion about others. Have a look at the below (unfortunately, they’re only in Arabic).

Coca-Cola Middle East is taking a similar approach to its Ramadan messaging, by promoting a world without labels through abandoning its own labeling.

To quote from Coca-Cola’s own website:

“A limited-edition run of red Coca-Cola cans features the brand’s white dynamic ribbon, but not its signature scripted logo. The backs of the cans include the anti-prejudice, pro-tolerance message: “Labels are for cans, not people.”

“Coca-Cola Middle East also released a video documenting a unique social experiment that highlights stereotyping in society. The short film shows how Coke invited six strangers to an iftar – the nightly fast-breaking meal during the holy month of Ramadan, which runs through July 17 – in the dark. The guests conversed without forming prejudices about their fellow diners based on physical appearance.”

Coca-Cola’s approach to Ramadan has been both welcomed as well as questioned. Dubai-based public relations professional and blogger Alexander McNabb posted a list of hilarious thoughts which he shared with Coca-Cola’s media agency about the announcement. Go have a read, and let me know what you think about what Coca-Cola is doing this Ramadan.

One Day #WithoutShoes – How TOMS is getting consumer sustainability spot on

TOMS' sustainability strategy is simple to understand, its aligned to the business, and it's designed with consumers - and social media - in mind

TOMS’ sustainability strategy is simple to understand, its aligned to the business, and it’s designed with consumers – and social media – in mind

It’s fair to say that getting sustainability right is a challenge for most companies; it’s even harder when you throw consumers into the mix. However, every now and then a campaign comes along that makes you sit up and take notice.

Founded in 2006, the US-based shoe retailer TOMS was founded with a strong sense of giving back to communities in need. The company’s promise was simple – for each pair of shoes bought, it would donate another pair of shoes to a child in need. To date, TOMS has given more than 35 million pairs of new shoes to children in need.

This year TOMS brought their global CSR campaign, which has been running for eight years, to the United Arab Emirates. The company has taken its original premise of “One Day without Shoes”, an event where participants do not wear shoes throughout the day in order to raise awareness for TOMS’ goal of giving shoes to children-in-need, online and onto social media.

The concept is a simple yet powerful initiative where they would like people to take a picture of their bare feet and share it on Instagram. With each picture shared, one pair of shoes will be given to a child in need. A simple picture tagged with #WithoutShoes can help the cause and provide a donation.

As of last Thursday afternoon, more than 296,000 children will benefit from the campaign, according to the company’s website. It’d be interesting to see how many UAE consumers got involved (I’ll see if I can get a response from the UAE retailer which has the TOMS franchise, Apparel Group.

The below are just a sample of the 300,000 plus images which have been generated over the past two weeks, both by consumers as well as celebrities and the media. Let’s hope other companies can learn from TOMS and how powerful a simple concept such as this can be for the brand, the consumer and for communities in need.

View this post on Instagram

#WithoutShoes with great friends. 👣#BareFeet #MorningswithMelissa

A post shared by MKJ (@morningswithmelissa) on

Coca Cola’s #OpenUp campaign to promote sharing and caring in the Middle East

Coca Cola has hit upon an interesting initiative for its latest digital campaign, with the aim of promoting openness between families. Released with the hashtag #OpenUp on YouTube, Coca Cola has developed two videos over the past eight days. The first, and for me the most moving, is that of Saudi chef Badr. Badr left behind the family tradition of architecture to study and become a cook, which is a rarity in Saudi society. The video and story are both well conceived and directed.

The second video features a social media star from Kuwait, named Ascia. Ascia recounts the challenges she has had to overcome in society as she has pioneered her ideas through Instagram. She thanks her husband Ahmed for the support he has shown her.

What do you think? Are the concepts powerful enough for you to share your #OpenUp story? Do you find them sincere or too scripted? Let me know your thoughts on the content and on Coca Cola’s work here. I’ll keep you posted on any additional videos that Coca Cola posts for this campaign.

Has Coca Cola hit or missed the CSR mark with its Happiness Phone Booth labourer project?

Coca Cola is all about happiness. The soft drinks giant has been looking to associate itself with the concept of happiness for years, and these efforts regularly involve cause-related marketing activations. The latest effort by Coca Cola in the United Arab Emirates, named Happiness Phone Booth, gave laborers in the country an opportunity to make a call home. The special Hello booths didn’t accept coins but rather Coca-Cola bottle caps. Each bottle of Coca-Cola could be “turned into” a 3-minute free international phone call. Watch the clip below to understand the project in its entirety.

The controversy about this idea, which is clear in the comments underneath the video, is about the source of the bottle tops themselves. Are the labourers given Coca Cola bottles? If so, then why not make this clear on the video. If not, either the labourers have to spend two Dirhams out of their daily 18 Dirham salary on a bottle or find other means (which I’ll leave to your imagination).

So Coca Cola, shouldn’t you have targeted a group of the population who can afford your products for this cause-based marketing campaign?

What are your thoughts? Has Coca Cola done good? Or can it do better?

Make a New Year’s Resolution for your company and go volunteer in 2014

Volunteering will benefit you, your employees and your business more than you may imagine (image source - www.zmetravel.com)

Volunteering will benefit you, your employees and your business more than you may imagine (image source – http://www.zmetravel.com)

You’re finished with the festive period, the time of year when we have a tendency to overindulge. Now, having seen in the new year, most of us will have made a number of resolutions for our own betterment. But if you’re thinking of a way to make a difference in 2014, why not take a step forward and make a resolution for your company and community?

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is gaining a foothold among businesses across the region and one method that all businesses, both large and small, can adopt is to volunteer their time to support local charitable organisations.

There’s a misconception among business owners that volunteering or other forms of CSR is the preserve of large corporations. Nothing could be further from the truth. Giving back by donating your time and expertise to your community can be beneficial to you, your staff and business for many reasons. Not only can volunteering help your community and create a shared sense of achievement among your employees, but giving back can even help your business grow in way that you may not expect. Here’s how:

Volunteering can broaden your experience

Volunteering provides an opportunity to work on something different, with new people in a new place for a new cause. The experiences are not only personally rewarding, but you may and your staff will develop new skills and thinking from the not-for-profit sector that may benefit your own business. When you volunteer for the right reasons to give back to the community, you’ll not only develop new perspectives but you’ll also become more of an empathetic, well-rounded leader and be able to bring these skills and experiences back to bear on your own goals and those of your business.

Your employee morale will improve

Giving to the community has significant benefits for employee satisfaction. Studies by London in 2010 found that 94 per cent of companies had found that volunteering positively impacted employee morale. Volunteering allows your staff to give back to their communities, learn new skills and participate in causes that many of them may passionately believe in, such as the environment, good health and childcare. Volunteering has been found to boost employee health as well as their morale.

Doing well is good for your business reputation too

As a business owner, no one will know better than you that your actions impact your business reputation. Giving back to the local community will have positive effect on your brand. The more that you become part of your local community, the faster your reputation as a business that cares will grow. Volunteering helps your company show that you are empathetic and that you do understand the needs and concerns of local communities.

Develop new relationships and strengthen existing ones

There’s no better way to develop and maintain good relationships than working together with others for a good cause. Getting out there and volunteering will enable you to meet new people who you may not otherwise meet. Even if these relationships don’t initially seem relevant to you and your business, the power of networking will mean that you’ll have a group of individuals outside of your usual business circles to consult with and give you different perspectives.

If you haven’t ever volunteered before and don’t know where to start, there are a number of organisations and bodies that can advise you. For companies based in Dubai, the best place to start is the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and its Engage team that already has a strong connection with most of Dubai’s charitable organisations. The Engage team may be able to point you and your business in the right direction as to how and where to start. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce and the Engage team can be reached at responsiblebusiness@dubaichamber.com.

For companies in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group is a governmental organisation that promotes sustainability best practises and would be best placed to provide similar advice as to where to start in the UAE’s capital. You can contact them at contact@adsg.ae.

For business owners in Saudi Arabia, your best resource may be the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has a database of all locally registered charities in the kingdom. The ministry has offices in most of the kingdom’s cities, so do check out its website at http://www.mosa.gov.sa.

Volunteering doesn’t have to take a tremendous amount of time or energy and yet giving back can be one of the most rewarding things you do over 2014 for yourself and your employees. Get started today and make a difference not only to yourself, but to your local community as well.

This piece was first published on the Kipp Report.

Is the Middle East’s CSR industry forgetting about its youth?

We’re in a region where the majority of the population is under the age of 24. The youth is the story of the Middle East. And yet I didn’t feel this way at a recently-held event on corporate social responsibility here in Dubai. Many of the speakers were in their fifties or sixties. The audience, while slightly younger, were still old enough to be a decade or two above the region’s median age.

While the speeches about sustainability and social responsibility were notable for their good intentions and advice, there still seems to be a good deal of the old leading the young rather than empowering young to help themselves. There have been a couple of notable attempts to break this mould, such as Coca Cola’s Ripples of Happiness which supported university students in Bahrain, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan to identify opportunities for CSR and employment projects.

I hope that corporations and governments understand what I’m trying to convey above. If we’re going to engender change in the region, the agents of change will be the youth. They need to be given the chance to set an agenda for social change and social responsibility rather than have ideas developed by older generations.

For more info about Coca Cola’s Ripples of Happiness please see the video below which is from the Dubailynx.com website.

Going above and beyond: How IBM is supporting Sharjah through training and education (and all for free)

Corporations often about about giving back. The phrase corporate social responsibility is often uttered by executives. But how many companies really get their hands stuck in when it comes to providing knowledge, skills, and experience to local communities.

IBM’s remit has included encouraging ICT adoption among Sharjah’s youth

One company that I admire and respect for how it does things differently is IBM. IBM, or Big Blue as the company is also known, is a vendor to the Government of Sharjah for its e-government project. IBM did what few other vendors do, and sent a team of volunteers over to Sharjah to help develop a communications strategy that would promote Sharjah’s e-government services to the Emirate’s citizens and residents. Here’s a couple of bite-size quotes from IBM’s press memo.

An international team of 14 IBM employees chosen for the company’s Corporate Services Corps program has arrived in the United Arab Emirates to volunteer their expertise in support of e-literacy and social development in the Emirate of Sharjah. As part of the project, the team will work alongside the Sharjah e-Government Directorate, Sharjah University and the Supreme Council for Family Affairs Centers.

The team of 14 IBM experts from the United States, India, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Australia will be on the ground in Sharjah for a month. At the Sharjah e-Government Directorate, a team will help refine a national strategy for promoting e-services of the Sharjah government to residents.

At the Supreme Council of Family Affairs, an IBM team will help the council and its organizations realize an e-literacy program and move closer towards realizing its goals of helping Sharjah women and youth improve their IT skills.

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps are teams of subject matter experts who give their time free of charge for a month to help local economies, improve skills, and provide a foundation for success in a variety of disciplines to small businesses, educational institutions and non-profit organisations.

As a person who is passionate about communications, I find it interesting that IBM focused on working with Sharjah on how to promote e-services. In a sense it acknowledges the truth that having a good technical setup and list of services just isn’t enough. If you don’t know about the services and/or your habits are ingrained then you won’t use a new services. It’ll be interesting to see how IBM and the Sharjah Government will look to tackle the issue of change, to promote services that contrast with how government affairs have been traditionally run in the Gulf (think lots of office trips and paperwork).

In addition, how will the initiative have tackled internal change, to convince government employees who would have never thought about either using e-services or promoting electronic government.

I’d love to know if IBM considered the prospect of using traditional communication methods such as a majlis (usually a night-time gathering of several dozen men, or women, in one room discuss everything from personal issues to business) to talk about and listen to ideas on how to publicize e-services as well as demonstrate the ease with which one could complete a government transaction or service without having to talk to someone face to face or leave one’s house or office.

How will IBM and the Sharjah Government promote e-services to a society that is both traditional and conservative?

In a conservative society with many different cultures, nationalities and languages what tactics can be used to convey a message successfully? The thought of using centuries-old concepts and practices to make a success out of a cutting edge technology project to change how government services are requested and delivered is fascinating. Again, I wonder what IBM came up with on this project.

All in all, this is what CSR should be about. Supporting a government e-services project through communications? Providing advice and training for getting more women and youth into technology? And for free? I hope others follow in IBM’s footsteps. We all could do with more corporate love through such projects.

PS for more news on IBM’s Corporate Service Corps initiative have a look at the website http://www.ibm.com/ibm/responsibility/corporateservicecorps/ or follow the hashtag #ibmcsc!

Where’s the corporate response to #Sandy?

The response to tropical storm/hurricane Sandy online has been remarkable. There’s little anyone else is talking about, and even as far off as the Middle East people are sending their wishes to those caught in the storm’s path. To give you an idea about how Sandy has been trending on social media, have a look at the analytics graph from Hashtag.org for #sandy.

The graph, from hashtags.org, is from a one percent sample of Twitter traffic over the past 24 hours.

Everyone has been pitching in to provide help, support and comfort to those affected. According to thenextweb, Twitter has supported relief efforts by promoting the following twitter accounts @RedCross, @FEMA,@NYCMayorsOffice, and @MDMEMA. “Twitter is also listing government accounts and resources on its blog and giving #Sandy a custom page,” according to the piece by Harrison Weber on TNW.

Even celebrities have been taking to the social media space to talk about Sandy.

Aside from the danger to life posed by Sandy, the main talking points have been flooding and power outages. As a big fan of the likes of ABB (my former company) and GE, I was hoping that they and others would be talking about the disaster and lending a hand to get everything back on track. Estimations are that eight million people are without power right now in the Eastern seaboard of the US, and that utility company staffers are traveling from as far as California and Texas to help out in New York.

And what is on GE’s Facebook page?

This was GE’s latest post to their Facebook page, which is liked by over 900,000 people. There’s no mention of Sandy.

And ABB?

ABB’s latest Facebook post which was put up in the afternoon of October 30. Again, no mention of Sandy.

This isn’t exactly an empirical study, but it worries me that two of the world’s most respected electrical engineering companies are not lending their support or even making their support known by social media. While I understand that many corporates don’t want to be seen to be taking advantage of the situation, surely there’s a time and place for them to offer their support and advice publicly.

Not talking about what is affecting millions of people seems so out of place, especially when on social media and when the companies mentioned provide solutions that power our utilities.

After all, aren’t we supposed to be talking with each other via Facebook and Twitter. Or do we go on, ignoring global events? Hardly being socially responsibly on social media, is it?