The following is a conversation between Myriam Sidibe, Author of Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth through Purpose, and Denver Frederick, the Host of the Business of Giving.
Denver: There was a time when developing impactful social missions and driving business growth were considered to be mutually exclusive. Today, however, they are linked more closely than they have ever been. No one understands that connection better than my next guest. She is Myriam Sidibe, the author of Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Myriam!
Myriam: Thank you so much, Denver! It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today talking about my favorite subject, Brands on a Mission, and how to drive and make a mission profitable, as well as driving social impact.
…there is significant power in being able to drive good to the consumers through some of this marketing. But the reality is: we need to just keep a lot of these companies and brands accountable to really delivering on the impact that they claim that they want to drive.
Denver: Well, one could glibly say that you accidentally fell into this line of work, but that quite literally happened to you. What occurred that set you off on this trajectory?
Myriam: Well, to be honest, I had just graduated, finishing a Master’s degree in Water Engineering. I spent the next couple of years after that building toilets and handwashing facilities in refugee camps for an American NGO, actually, and then I kept being disturbed by the way people were being called… the AIDS sector was calling all these refugees “beneficiaries,” and nobody was using the toilets that we were building, the handwashing facilities.
So basically, I went back to school, did a Doctorate in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with my forever mentor Val Curtis, Professor Val Curtis, who actually passed away two days ago. And then I basically went back to present my findings on my research– which was around how to get kids to wash their hands– to the company that had funded it, Unilever, and they offered me a job.
So I moved to Unilever for about 15 years. And then I realized… something absolutely fantastic happened. I started falling in love with a word, and that word was actually “consumers.” Because I started realizing that Unilever was using all its talent, its time, its energy to actually drive the same people that were being called beneficiaries by the AIDS sector…were actually being considered as consumers because they had a little bit of money to spend, and all the time was being spent to understand what fragrance works for them, what packaging of soap they would want. And then all of a sudden, I realized that there was a lot of potential of being able to drive good from the marketing as a discipline in itself. And I think this is where we started and how the conversation moved me.
So 15 years later, here I am, still a marketeer, still at the forefront of a lot of these conversations, and realizing that there is significant power in being able to drive good to the consumers through some of this marketing. But the reality is: we need to just keep a lot of these companies and brands accountable to really delivering on the impact that they claim that they want to drive.
Denver: What would be the difference, Myriam, of approaching me as an individual, on one hand as a beneficiary, and on another hand as a consumer?
Myriam: I think as a beneficiary, I look at you as somebody who has no resources, who basically needs everything that we’re about to give you in order to survive. As a consumer, we look at you with a little bit more dignity, thinking you can choose which soap brand you might want to buy. You might want a shea butter one, or you might want a cocoa butter one, or you might buy an oats one. That’s your problem. But the point is in that little 50 cents that you might have in your pocket, that’s a decision you make.
So I think it treats you with the fact that you can make choices yourself, and I think that’s a huge change in the way you look at the same people — looking at them as beneficiaries who had no resources versus consumers that somehow we, as the private sector, have to think about driving innovations to be able to reach them.
Denver: That’s a great distinction. Well, in those 15 years that you spent at Unilever, you were able to create a movement to change the handwashing behaviors of a billion people. But before we get into that, what is the data on the health benefits of handwashing?
Myriam: Handwashing with soap is the best line of defense for COVID-19. We’ve just seen that, and we’re right in the middle of that. But we also know that handwashing with soap reduces diarrhea by over 50% or between 40% to 50%, by pneumonia, by acute respiratory infections, reduces eye infections, gets kids to attend school, so reduces school absenteeism.
So we’ve seen that every minute, about two kids will die because they haven’t been able to practice or the family hasn’t been able to protect them from some of these childhood diseases. So handwashing with soap is the foundation of public health and has been for a really long time.
Denver: Getting a billion people to change their behavior is truly phenomenal. What were the keys that went into achieving that?
Myriam: I think first, you have to sit within a vehicle, and that vehicle was the brand. So I actually sat within the LifeBuoy brand, which was a soap brand that we were trying to bring from being a regional brand to a global brand. I sat in that brand for 10 years, and then later on, five years in Africa. So in total, over 15 years.
I think what we did is that we tried to infuse the marketing with a little bit of behavior change to make sure that we had programs that were ready to scale up. And then the second element that was absolutely critical is that it became part of the mission of the brand, or should I say, part of what the brand needed to drive in order to grow. So we basically agreed that it was essential for this brand to be able to reach and get more people to wash their hands in order to grow the brand. So the vision and the mission became very similar.
So I think the vehicle of the brand was essential. So, it isn’t Myriam alone that managed or had done that. Not at all. So Myriam might’ve had the vision, but Myriam was supported by amazing bosses, inspirational bosses, that thought, number one, this was possible. And also we had an all-in approach where the leadership made it an external goal that was communicated. And regardless of whether or not the brand was performing, we kept making sure that that was non-negotiable, in terms of being able to drive this behavior change program.
And it also meant that we had all the best brains to start thinking about ways in which you would achieve this behavior change and how you would drive this. So how much of this would be done by the school’s program? How much of this would be done via doing the programs on TV? How much of this would actually be done through a mother’s program? How much would this be done by digital? How much would you do with partners? And I think it’s the combination of all this that made all the difference.
Denver: You really broke it down. What’s been the impact of COVID and the pandemic on handwashing around the world?
Myriam: Everybody has been figuring, thinking about handwashing with soap. Like I’d like to say, I have been dreaming of ways to get people to wash their hands for the last 20 years. It really took COVID-19 for them to get to listen and to really think about what else they could do and how to translate that.
I think COVID-19 has also been the business development opportunity of the century for soap manufacturers, and let’s call it what it is.
They’ve seen huge growth that they wouldn’t normally have. But at the same time, it also means that the responsibility is upon them to be able to have systemic approaches, to think about whether people have access to handwashing facilities, whether people have access to water, whether people have access to handwashing facilities, soap, and water all in the same place so that people can practice the behavior… and then, therefore, drive the behavior change …of making sure that it is always top of mind, that we can keep the messages surprising…all the amazing learnings that we’ve known or know about behavior change. So I think, ultimately, this is what we’ve been thinking about and see where that would be key.
So what COVID-19 has done is put handwashing at the forefront of the public health agenda. I wish it didn’t take a pandemic to do so. But the reality is: Now, how do we use this pandemic as an opportunity to keep the agenda going so that we can make real structural changes so that everybody everywhere can practice this life-saving behavior?
…there is a particular role here that brands will be able to use their influence, their voices, their influencers, their digital space, to be able to mark that this is the new way to behave, and this is the new way in which we are only going to be able to stop the transmission of COVID-19 or, at least limit it.
Denver: One of the programs you developed when you were at Unilever in this regard was the School of 5 comic book with its superheroes who encourage hygiene around the world. What can brands do now, or are they doing, to help promote school safety during the pandemic?
Myriam: Well, there’s a big one, and one that I’ve just written quite a bit on in the Entrepreneur because I’m a regular contributor in the Entrepreneur Magazine.
I think there’s obviously norms. So making sure that the advertising is always showing ways in which people have to practice the handwashing with soap, social distancing, and wearing masks. But there’s also the influences that they’re using. There’s also the fact that we can keep giving them child-friendly ways in which kids will be able to practice this routine regularly because I think you can send your kid with a mask, and then he comes back with a friend’s friend’s mask. That’s the kind of conversation that we’re going to have a lot to deal with. I’ve got two little kids myself, so I know where that’s going and how that conversation is going to be driven.
I really think that there is a role in which brands can act as an ally to a lot of these families to support them in trying to drive these behaviors for kids, to make it more appealing, to make the routine easier, to make sure, for example, that the pledging happens regularly amongst all kids. This is now the new normal. This is the way in which we reset this button. And we make sure that handwashing happens at every hour or so within the schools, and that everybody is thinking about how to protect each other within this particular pandemic.
So I think there is a particular role here that brands will be able to use their influence, their voices, their influencers, their digital space, to be able to mark that this is the new way to behave, and this is the new way in which we are only going to be able to stop the transmission of COVID-19, or at least limit it.
Denver: Absolutely. You talk about the bridge and divide between the “Brand Say” and the “Brand Do.” Tell us a little bit about that and what we need to do… or companies need to do to close it.
Myriam: I think a lot of companies have gotten into the whole idea around purpose. But I think the key question of the decade is about: How do you translate purpose into reality? How do you make it a meaningful, actionable mission that actually really drives genuine change?
I think Unilever uses something very simple, and I think all the agencies do now, which is called “Brand Say” and “Brand Do,” which basically shows that there is a way in which you communicate to the consumers, and there is a way in which you do, you really drive impact, which informs the Brand Say. So I think my book and the book I’ve just written is a guide on how to drive this Brand Do, how to keep these companies accountable and honest in terms of being able to lend the real program.
Like how do they make sure that for every marketing dollar, that behavior change is really driving positive norms? What kind of partnership is going to give them the right depth and the right scale that they’re looking for? What kind of systemic change should they be part of, and how do they communicate this back to their consumers? What sort of measurement is going to help them grow, moving forward, at the social impact level, at the business impact level, at the company level… company-wide approaches as well?
And therefore, little tips that you should give to companies as well and employees that are trying to drive this change because it’s very difficult. How to obviously become a leader that makes the change? How to set cultures within these companies to become a real company that does and not just a company that says, that is just so focused on award-winning rather than actually focusing on making sure that you’re driving the impact, every bar of soap at a time?
Denver: Despite all that and despite the research that shows that this really pays off, this business model pays off, why do you think that there are still many brands who are reluctant to take action?
Myriam: I think because they realized that it costs… it’s resource-intensive. It’s an all-in approach. This isn’t an approach that you can do half-baked. I think it will come up very quickly if all you’re doing is PR, because at some point people will see that you are not really genuine and authentic on the way you are actually driving this agenda, and I think that is something that you need to really think about.
I think there is something essential here. There’s something essential about the kind of resources that are required from a company perspective, and also companies and marketers become scared that if they’re authentic and then start changing, then people are going to say, “Then what were you doing this 20 years ago? Should we tell you that actually, what you did was not okay?” And I think that’s a big concern, especially when we talk about this purpose element.
I always talk about whether this is a fact with a brand, there’s such a thing as redemption for brands because if you want to do right now, and it means that you’re basically saying what we did was wrong, does this mean that you have this notorious brand that you are apologizing? Or do we actually accept that getting better, you do better today when you know better? So I think that is another element that is hard.
And then I think marketers have a real issue when it comes to creating shared values because they can see, and it’s very short term, the way that they drive sales. And as long as the way we look at the profit as not just the sales of last month but rather quarterly or yearly basis in a way that is driving real impact, then you’ll always stay in this really short-term perspective, which I think is a real issue.
…rather than focusing on racial stereotypes and racial name changes, I think it’s important to create real social footprints changes, and that’s something that I’ve been talking about quite a bit.
Denver: I think you’re absolutely right. What’s your take on the recent moves by brands to update their images and messaging with regard to racism? We have Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Fair & Lovely. What have they got, Myriam, and what do they still need to do?
Myriam: Well, I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge that you were built upon the stereotypes that might have been actually damaging for a big part of the population, and it’s not okay to do so, and I think it’s important to change that. But rather than focusing on racial stereotypes and racial name changes, I think it’s important to create real social footprints changes, and that’s something that I’ve been talking about quite a bit.
So if you’re Aunt Jemima, yes, changing your name is good, but also thinking about whether or not you are not driving obesity amongst the same people that you think that you’re offending by name changes because I think it’s a question also of being all-encompassing when it comes to purpose. It isn’t about making a positive change somewhere, but then doing something negative elsewhere. I think this is the part that we need to really think about.
I think the other part that’s really, really essential is: How do you get the boards and your board to really be a reflection of the changes you’re trying to drive? It isn’t just about saying: “I support Black lives.” It’s about creating the conditions and the environment in which these Black professionals can really thrive. And are you being really inclusive in the way you are managing your brands? In the way you are really thinking about that part of the population? In a way that it will be intuitive that you’ll not waste the time and therefore, those racist stereotypes no longer are acceptable in any shape or form in the way in which you look at that? But I think it has to go beyond changing racist names because that is only scraping the surface.
I believe…that health and well-being is the foundation of social justice, that I think as long as we don’t make health equitable to all, it’s impossible to be able to really talk about genuine social justice.
Denver: Right. That’s one single act, and it really doesn’t create anything differently. You have said that health and well-being is the foundation for social justice, and that racism, in fact, is a public health issue. Talk a little bit about that. If you would.
Myriam: I think it has to be tackled with the same urgency. I believe, number one, that health and well-being is the foundation of social justice, that I think as long as we don’t make health equitable to all, it’s impossible to be able to really talk about genuine social justice.
I think now, I’m going to push back and say that even racism is a public health issue. And if you think about what sort of issues racism has created from a mental health disparity… centuries of inequalities that you’re creating… you need to be able to tackle it with the same level of urgency, not to give excuses for people to say, “Maybe they were mentally unstable, and that’s the reason.” No. But to say the root causes of these inequalities have to be tackled, and people have to be educated and to be openly anti-racist, and I think that’s something that’s really absolutely essential here.
Denver: There was a time when companies were quite reluctant to take a stand on an issue because they were fearful of antagonizing or alienating some of their consumers. I can certainly remember those days quite well. But that has really changed, and brands do need to take a stand. Some are still reluctant. What would you tell them and how they can do so responsibly?
Myriam: I think the ones that… the brands that stand up and really voice their opinion, I call those “Brands on a Mission,” and that’s the title of my book, and that’s the title of my movement and my company.
So I think there is an element of having and embedding moral values as a way to survive. I think that is the only way in which you’ll be able to embed this in the future and to be able to really act and grow because consumers are starting to be really discerning with brands that are not just talking and not actually walking the talk.
I think that is the difference that we are seeing more and more in this new era of purpose in here, and seeing how embedded is it in the business model. And how much more can one do to be able to drive this, moving forward? I think that’s the kind of conversations that we’ve been having and, obviously, that I’ve been driving.
I think: how to do this responsibly is, like I said, it’s bridging the divide between the Brand Say and the Brand Do. It’s being very transparent with what you do. It’s having an all-in approach where you are really actively thinking about all elements. So I talked a lot in my HBR article around Carling Black Label and the amazing work they’ve done on trying to reduce toxic masculinity, for example, in South Africa.
But if in the same areas and the same places where they are selling their beers are also the places where people are the most broken society and therefore more prone to harmful drinking, that is a real issue. So you need to be all-encompassing on the way in which you are addressing that, and I think that is where the conversation starts.
Denver: You have calls for a global marketing campaign to defeat COVID-19. Share with us that vision and the progress you’ve been able to make to date, Myriam.
Myriam: I believe that brands can do quite a lot. I think brands, and like I said to you before, can help in driving this change. This change on behaviors — wearing masks, washing hands. I think there is an element in trying to drive this behavior change and thinking about what systemic change they’ll be able to address.
I really feel like there is an opportunity here that we shouldn’t pass on where purpose is going to equal us being able to protect populations against COVID-19 and getting those behaviors, protective behaviors, top of mind. Basically, I’ve called in and said, “Look, can we get as many brands and as many companies to join into this, to really drive?
One of the things that came out last month was the movement of H For Handwashing, which is basically a movement on trying to change the curriculum of preschools when we’ve learned forever that “H” was for “hat” or “H” was for “hippo” to say “Can we do “H” for “handwashing?” and change it where it matters. But that is only possible if you say “H is for handwashing.” That also comes with the handwashing facilities and the water and the programs and the partnership that one can create here. And I think that would be absolutely critical.
Denver: And as part of this mission you were just talking about, this movement, you’re also looking to generate a billion dollars’ worth of sustainable capital. Correct?
Myriam: Yes. I’m trying to create sustainable models, business models that are so transformational that I start counting how much of the resources from these companies are being spent in those models, and therefore, how do I count this towards the SDGs? That is my goal. Beyond is where I’m mainly hoping to… but I really feel like there is a real… that we’re not counting the SDGs, the United Sustainable Development Goals. I’m not counting what the private sector is really bringing to the table when they change their business models. And that is one of the things that I’m trying to really address at this point, is to say, “Can we get into a position where we change that and we start counting?”
In one way, the SDGs can create an environment where $1.8 trillion of opportunities are created, but also, we can create additional investment towards some of the root causes of inequalities in societies on health and well-being that can be addressed for some of these brands and their business models.
Denver: Finally, Myriam, when you assess the extraordinary set of resources that brands have to communicate with the public about how they can comply with what’s needed during this pandemic, what kind of grade would you give the business community?
Myriam: What kind of grades would I give them? I think it depends.
I think there are some companies and brands that have done a fantastic job. I love… I think Ben & Jerry’s is doing great work in terms of what they’ve done, for example, on, reducing inequality, speaking out about it, educating the public, understanding the difference between being racist and non-racist. So there is an amazing amount of work there on advocacy, on campaigning, which is to die for, and I would give them 8.5 out of 10.
I would say that there are some brands that have done some great work of just putting money down on the table, but they are not really reflecting on their business model and their practices, which can be even more damaging than the amount of money that they would put on the table. And I think that for that, I have a real problem with it. I keep calling those out because I think there are some real issues there.
I also think that there is a real opportunity to look at complementarity and inter-industry collaborations. I think for that, I’d like to see more of brands working together to be able to tackle issues rather than necessarily looking for the competition because together with the private sector, it can be stronger than any other force. And I believe in the market economy as a force for change, of course.
Denver: Fantastic. The title of the book is Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth through Purpose. If you’re seeking a guide to help your company become more purpose-driven, then do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, and you can learn more at brandsonamission.com.
Thanks, Myriam. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Myriam: Thank you so much, Denver.
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