Red Thread

how does big business satisfy consumer appetite for integrity?

Brand psychotherapy: In an age when people are hungry for integrity and meaning, how does big business satisfy that appetite?

We published a blog on purpose in 2014, which we revisited last week on reading Trinity Mirror’s new study on consumer trust The study reports the unsurprising figure of 43% of consumers claiming to mistrust brands and 69% claiming to distrust advertising. Nothing particularly noteworthy there. More interestingly, the research also identified found that nearly 40% of consumers view major businesses as part of the ‘Establishment’ and a majority are actively sceptical about brand purpose: 58% of adults don’t believe brand purpose until they have seen ‘real world proof’ with their own eyes.

Our 2014 post did its best to look at the glass half-full and cheers to that. Here’s more of a glass half-empty look…

Watching the concept of Brand Purpose spread has been very reminiscent of the 80s when Tom Peters relentlessly and almost single-handedly pushed Excellence and Big Hairy Audacious Goals up every Boardroom agenda. We should have all suspected at the time that Tom’s ambition for corporate excellence was the product of his personal psychology rather than the intrinsic power of any one idea.

And businesses are like people. They have their own personalities, their own psychologies and their own pathologies. Manfred Kets de Vries has explored business culture for over 30 years through the lens of business leaders and his output includes titles such as ‘The Neurotic Organisation’, ‘Organizations on the Couch’, ‘Essays on Irrational Organizations and their Leaders’ and more. Much of de Vries’s work is based on taking a psychoanalytical approach to organisational behaviour.

At the heart of both, people and business, are relatively immovable psychological structures. For people, belief systems based on early years parental influence: for businesses, the enduring mark of the founder. Individuals and businesses both share core beliefs, such as life is a competition or hard or, more positively, life is an opportunity. For both, the financial model, and its relationship to our identity, and security. Just like people, businesses can be extremely resilient and, just like people, once their personality structure has crystallised, they resist change fiercely.

Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt psychotherapy, described two routes to change.

The first was an implosion, the mini-death which precipitates personal change, and growth. It’s the conclusion of realising that our routine behaviours, including the relationships we create, are no longer delivering for us. In business, it’s called the burning platform. As far as I’ve read and experienced, a burning platform is the only sure-fire lever for real change.

The second was acceptance (simply expressed here by The Bristol Therapist). The foundation of Gestalt is that self-acceptance dissolves the internal tensions and external facades which bind us to these patterns of behaviour. But for most of us, there’s a mini-death along that path….

Where’s all this heading?

To the simple point that a cognitive concept like Purpose remains a concept unless it’s felt and lived by the CEO. Unless it’s personal, in the way it became for Ray Anderson of Interface, Paul Polman from Unilever or, to a lesser extent, Ian Powell of PWC. Once again, we’re at the juncture between emotion and cognition.

Purpose – in this sense of an emotive force within a business – is not something you can operationalise. You can place it in your values, you can print it on your documents, you can use it to reframe your CSR, you can repeat it to your customers, but that’s not Purpose.

You can hyper-rationalise what you do and audit every single positive externality to demonstrate clearly, beyond doubt, that your presence within the business community is a cornerstone of society. But that sort of purpose doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t galvanise employees. It’s not enough to rest a credible case on or build a robust communications platform. And, as Trinity Mirror findings suggest, it has precisely the opposite effect on consumers, who just see another attempt by businesses to feign a commitment and values which in many many cases aren’t really there. And then you’ve just erased another connection with … people.

As we wrote in 2014, people need a sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl’s short but powerful account of life in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning, relates how only meaning and purpose made survival possible. A sense of purpose, aka meaning, is a ‘human given‘ – a sine qua non of existence, every bit as much as a sense of attachment or sense of self,  or a need for responsiveness.

Coincidentally, last week also saw the launch announcement by EY Global President and CEO Mark Weinberger of The Embankment Project, in partnership with Inclusive Capitalism. The ambition of The Embankment Project is to create a framework to measure Long Term Value – based on organisational purpose.

LTV, as defined in the White Paper, is: ‘the value created for and perceived by stakeholders through the effective development, preservation and deployment of strategic capabilities in line with the organisation’s stated purpose’. Purpose is the organisation’s ‘aspirational reason for being, grounded in humanity and inspiring a call to action’.

It’s a great exercise in reimagining financial reporting to make it more relevant, more timely, more realistic, and – its third ambition – to restore the public’s trust in (big) business. In the words of Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Founder of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism: ‘We have reached a critical point in history when popular opinion of capitalism is very low… This will worsen unless trust between business and the public improves.’ Global businesses such as Allianz, Du Pont, J&J, Pepsico and Unilever will be piloting the reporting framework developed by EY.

Like most thought leadership exercises, of course, its main value is to stimulate debate and engagement – and in that, I’m sure it will succeed.

But a final plea for emotion. Trust is not built on reporting systems: it’s based on a far more complex web of (personal) judgments based on an organisation’s largest (governance and ethics) and its smallest (daily) actions; and it’s based on perceived motives.

Professor Glenn Reeder, whose work focuses on how we perceive others, knows that we use multiple inputs and cues to assess motives; and that we attribute three fundamental flavours of motive to behaviours: free choice, no choice (obligation), and calculative choice (ulterior motive). Interpretation of motive is a key determinant of the traits we ascribe to others. In other words: suspicion of ulterior motives = distrust.

Although this research is conducted in the field of personal psychology, the parallel again between individual and organisation is obvious. So the question here is how big businesses can convince people that their motives are positive.

Tom Peters understood the connection between business passion and inspiring purpose. He preferred to talk about the power of being unreasonable, for example: customer service beyond what’s reasonable. Psychotherapy refers to authenticity.  Now the power of sponsorship is its ability to give a real-world display of brand values. Big, bold, purposeful sponsorship and partnership has the power to inspire belief better than any framework. But I’m not championing sponsorship as the way to rebuild trust in big business – far from it. I’m making the simple point that trust is built on emotions, not numbers. And… for many categories and business leaders, sponsorship can be… a very useful tool to work with emotion.