Walking the Talk: Moving purpose from aspiration into action

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Throughout her career in media and advertising, MediaCom's Group Business Leader and Executive Director Latha Sundaram has gained a passion for the role global organizations play in driving positive social change.

Latha sat down with Deborah Malone, founder of The Internationalist, for The Internationalists and the ANA Trendsetter podcast to discuss the future of purpose, consumer power, and what that means for media.

Deborah: Let's start by talking about how you define brand purpose for your clients, and one of the things I'm curious about is whether or not that definition or the considerations for the purpose has changed in the last year?

Latha: The purpose for most of our brands and clients is the value we are providing for our consumers. It's a combination of value, linking back to your ambitions and beliefs as a brand and that aspiration of what you want to do to the world around you.

Purpose for many years was perceived as a bit lofty or aspirational. You didn't know if you are creating your brand purpose or achieve it on a day-to-day basis. Over the past year or so, the definition of purpose has almost come back to the basics, and it recognizes that brands need to provide help and support to their consumers. Areas like stability, safety, empathy, unity - basic human needs are becoming more and more a part of what we see as a brand's purpose.

Deborah: Given we have all been living online, how has our increasingly digital world shifted the responsibilities of brands?

Latha: We talk about the word transparency so much, and transparency is what digital has helped provide more and more consumers the chance to get to know their brands more. Digital is allowing us the opportunity to see - Where was it made? Who were the people involved? You get a full view of the whole supply chain. The transparency digital provides us is allowing consumers to make different types of decisions about their brands and see if you are aligned to your purpose.

Digital is helping us to provide that transparency. Because of that beautiful social connection and community of digital, it's giving consumers a forum to talk about what brands are delivering or not. And because of that, we see more and more brands. If you are a part of that conversation with consumers, you'll get recognized. The more authentic brands being a part of that conversation are the ones that are being seen as more purposeful and being honest about where they are achieving their purpose and where they aren't. Then, in the end, digital is making everybody more accountable, probably more agile as we respond, and ultimately, more global.

Deborah: If you started talking about consumers and responsibilities, what about consumers' expectations now? Do you think that consumers' expectations are what's driving brands to be more purpose-led, or is that just one of several factors that's happening now?

Latha: It's almost like that perfect storm. 2020 was one of those years for the first time where we saw so much attention and advocacy on movements. Consumers started to realize those problems wouldn't be addressed just by a government or an NGO.

We saw that change as consumers became more and more vocal and became a part of that collective or the movement.

Companies are changing their view of consumers - they're almost not just consumers anymore. I think consumers are using their voices to ultimately express how they're going to be using their wallets.

Deborah: Many people talk about media's role and purpose. I'm curious about whether we're becoming a little more conscious of when not to convey messages.

Latha: It is interesting to see the role of media evolve over the past few years. Yes, media is there to create content, but it is also there to publish; it's also there to distribute and therefore makes this whole community. With that increased involvement by media companies and media partners, there is almost more of a responsibility that comes with that and greater influence. If I think about the role of media agencies, we are sitting at an incredible intersection at this point. We have an understanding of consumers. We work with fantastic media platforms, and we work with fabulous clients and companies trying to drive change. Media agencies are at such a unique point where we can accelerate that change by bringing those different elements together to collaborate and make that happen.

That's what gets me excited coming into work every day and seeing the role that we as media agencies can play and helping to accelerate and amplify the change that those companies, those media partners, and consumers, right, are all eager to see.

Deborah: If you were trying to communicate a purpose-led message for one of your clients, how would you engage that ecosystem, or is that something that happens all the time as a media agency?

Latha: There is a shift in intentional collaboration. We are seeing brands who compete join forces to drive a positive social change or folks that perhaps were on one end of an ecosystem, say, as a media partner, distributing content, somebody else creating the content bringing that all together.

Deborah: You talk about cultural agility and a sense of global community. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Latha: Absolutely. We must look beyond the traditional vectors of the eye and think more about the different cultural perspectives.

Digital has made us more of a global community; now, we hear what's happening in other parts of the world and global companies with a worldwide consumer basis. It is vital that we not just say we're diverse with our thinking but also culturally agile. So really keeping those different perspectives in mind as we're making our decisions.

Deborah: Purpose fatigue, corporate virtue signaling or mock altruism, brand activism, which I'm still struggling to figure out if that's a positive thing or a negative thing - do any of these things come up for you, or do you have any thoughts on some of these words or phrases that are coming out there?

Latha: I think what's happened is we've used said things without actions, and so many of these words are being used, and the action or the accountability might be missing.

Deborah: You and I are both very much in love with the best parts of our industry. And I think it's beautiful to be part of seeing the evolution of the industry because I believe more change has happened. Not only change in the real world but the difference in terms of just how we think about the responsibilities of marketing, and we've seen that in our lifetime to a degree. What do you see ahead then for brands?

Latha: I think we're going to see more active partnerships beyond just your immediate sphere, like one degree of influence. Even for us to sit and try to take on as a world, what the impact of COVID was; it meant that we had to join forces together.

You're going to see more of that with brands moving forward with NGOs, with governments in certain parts of the world, and you're right, with competitors as well, and more and more investors and consumers are ultimately asking for this. So the more our consumers are asking for it, we're going to see more and more, you're getting rewarded for collaborating versus acting on your own.

Listen to the full podcast episode here.

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