"It's about what you do, not what you say"
Defying Siberian weather an intrepid group of guests gathered in The Library at Shoreditch House on Thursday 1st March for the second in our series of Brand Culture Sessions.
What followed was a brilliant panel debate with Amy Sawbridge (until recently Brand Director and Head of People Strategy at Virgin Group) and Claire Bergkamp (Head of Sustainability at Stella McCartney) exploring the relationship between purpose and culture.
Amy kicked off the conversation by tackling what we mean by purpose, describing Virgin’s definition as simply ‘our reason for being’. However she also stressed that purpose must acknowledge the role that business plays in society.
“Purpose has the broader remit to put people and planet alongside profit.”
Claire then talked about the bravery Stella showed by launching a fashion house that rejected the use of leather – this, in a sector reliant on leather accessories to generate revenue.
Everyone thought she was crazy.
“But she always absolutely stood by her values… and if someone comes up against those values she will always win”
This led us beautifully into the panel debate proper…
You both work for strongly founder-led companies. Does this help communicate and clarify a sense of purpose?
Claire It’s very positive. I see it as a great thing. Having a human face, the leader that represents our purpose is amazing. Her values and her vision are things people rally behind. But it’s complicated too. Stella’s a mother of four, an icon and a brand as well – all at the same time.
Amy The human face of the purpose is really important. Richard’s a complex individual! And our Group is complex. Do all senior leaders across the whole Group align on purpose? It’s a challenge as there’s a whole bunch of people to rally who are all answerable to different sets of shareholders and boards. So in a way it’s easier if Richard fronts the purpose because he can then positively influence the senior leaders across the Group.
Claire …and as you grow, the leader has to take less responsibility and it becomes more of a business-led purpose. A more concrete, formalised and embedded purpose then you let people engage with it in their own way, find their own way to it.
How does purpose express itself in your culture?
Claire The purpose is experienced differently depending on which department you work in. We know sustainability is a huge point of why people want to join Stella McCartney.
For our design team, for example, the company’s purpose means there’s lots of things they can’t do! For example, they can’t use leather. In fashion what you make still has to be desirable, customers have to want to wear our clothes and they want to look good. So there is no compromise on aesthetic values.
Amy At Virgin Group the desire to make a difference and make a positive impact on the world is loud and clear. It underpins the Virgin People Promise and we look at purpose through the lens of people and culture.
A great example of really embracing living by its purpose is Virgin Money in the UK, their filter of how they can ‘make everyone better off’ drives everything across all internal employee experience, new products and services for customers. But they don’t over prescribe this so their people can sense-make for themselves, and they keep it simple.
Claire Ours is a purpose-led business so internally there is an expectation that we have to try and meet. We’ve set a very high bar and with that comes the risk of being under a lot of external scrutiny.
What other watch-outs are there when it comes to purpose?
Claire You will be judged! It has to be a genuine and real purpose. It is not a PR campaign or a marketing strapline. It has to go back to the roots and DNA of the company. And it needs to apply equally to both employees and customers
Amy The term purpose can be over-used and I’m sometimes cynical about it. If it doesn’t feel real or becomes overly articulated it can feel like a strapline. It has to be part of everything such as objective setting and decision making.
I’ve noticed some smaller companies that have started with a strong purpose and built their business around that and it’s great. I admire lots of small businesses that do this.
What about if you’re a big, mature company? Is purpose a ‘young brand’s game’?
Claire It requires great leaders and requires a change of the business model and how the business makes decisions.
Amy In some cases maybe the purpose was there all along but they forgot or haven’t articulated it. So these big companies should take some time to stop and think and remind themselves of why the company was started in the first place. This can provide some clues. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever has done a good job of this and has been the driver of the positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. He’s done this by going back to some of the Lever Brothers’ original principles.
What about the tension between brand purpose and personal beliefs? Does everyone have to be on board, or is it okay if I’m not personally committed?
Claire We can absorb different people. Stella doesn’t expect everyone to be a vegan. It’s about people wanting to contribute to a bigger change.
Amy I’m not sure how many employees join companies knowing the purpose. It depends on how overtly that is expressed externally.
Finally – what happens when you achieve your purpose? Is purpose a goal or a journey?
Amy It should be enduring but it can evolve. What a good purpose looks like now will continue to evolve so be deliberately mindful so it’s enduring but recognise it’ll shift.
We then opened up the debate to the floor…
How do you choose materials at Stella McCartney?
Claire It’s on a case-by-case basis. At the moment R&D and innovation are key. Our purpose actually forces innovation. We’re investing in material innovation and there are a few start-ups we partner with. There’s some really exciting stuff happening in this area such as what Bolt Threads based in California is doing in bio-tech. Especially because it’s been decades since fashion had new materials to work with.
Amy It’s the notion of ‘a beautiful constraint’. Purpose not only fosters innovation but is also a point of differentiation and can be a very powerful thing for consumers
What happens when you have a tricky situation that challenges your purpose? (referencing Virgin Care vs. the NHS and ‘the Daily Mail debacle)
Amy Virgin Care truly has a strong purpose; providing care good enough for your family and ensuring that people can really feel the difference. It’s highly political but I know the integrity of the Virgin Care team. It’s one of our strongest purpose-led businesses along with Virgin Money
Regarding the Daily Mail, this happened in response to how some of our employees were feeling about some of the opinions in that newspaper. Those were contra to the environment in which people could express their individuality. The Daily Mail’s views caused discomfort for some of our people. Once you set yourself up as having a purpose you’re always vulnerable to scrutiny and ensuring that you always live up to it. Who does your purpose affect? It’s employees, customers, the community, it’s a wide group of constituent parts. Delivering on purpose to one group sometimes means you’ll contradict another and it’s a day-to-day challenge trying to balance these.
How do you re-inject a sense of purpose?
Claire As we’ve grown we’ve set up different networks and forums inside the company so people can learn about our purpose, why we’re doing what we do. It’s easier at Stella McCartney because, compared to companies like Virgin Group, we’re relatively small.
Amy Things we’ve done to encourage broader engagement in and understanding of our purpose include some straightforward but important measures such as two of our CEOs send out weekly emails that each time include examples of positive impact, our purpose in action.
Contribution to purpose is included in our employee recognition programme. It’s all about real life stories and examples. These reinforce the message that purpose really does exist, shows what it’s there to deliver and how it’s relevant to every department in the business.
That’s it folks!