Doing good business

doing good business

“Profit’s not always the point,” says Harish Manwani, the Chief Operating Officer of Unilever, in a recent Ted Talk.

Manwani argues against the classic Invisible Hand of Adam Smith, and Milton Friedman’s statement, that “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” It’s simply not good enough, he says. Companies must play a role in serving their communities, making money and doing good at the same time.

If you have eight minutes, watch the video here:


As an anecdote, Manwani tells a story that I recognise very well, of starting out in a multinational consumer goods corporation. His boss asked him why he was there, to which he answered: “I’m here to sell soap.” “No,” replied his boss, “you’re here to change lives.”

This mission is remarkably similar to the expressed purpose of Procter & Gamble and its slogan, “Touching lives, improving life”. And both companies’ claims are likely to be deemed absurd by the cynic who would make the cold observation that the purpose of these businesses is to make profit, delivering returns to shareholders, and nothing more.

Manwani offers an example of Unilever’s contribution in the form of a hygiene and health programme that benefits half a billion people. When I visit the Unilever website, the first thing I see is “Changing the climate for growth and development”, while Sustainable Living is one of the four main items in the top menu.

The Procter & Gamble site likewise highlights Sustainability in its top menu, as well as in the carousel on the home page. P&G also has a number of global humanitarian initiatives such as its partnership with UNICEF on the Pampers brand, “1 pack – 1 vaccine”.

Is it all simply about building a brand image to sell more products and make more profit? And does it matter if it is, if they’re doing good in the process?

“Purpose” is a word being thrown about a lot in the last few years, but Manwani argues convincingly that purpose and values really are central to sustainable business in the 21st century. “Brands indeed can be at the forefront of social change. […] When two billion people use your brands […] small actions can make a big difference.”

That seems to have been the thinking behind Axe’s surprising new #kissforpeace campaign (incidentally, Axe is a Unilever brand). The agency responsible for the work says that it wanted to use the brand’s global influence in a positive way. As a marketer, I may well question the change of positioning, the brand character, the tone of voice… but as a human being, I say, good for them! If nothing else, Axe is donating $250,000 to Peace One Day, a non-profit organisation whose aim is to institutionalise Peace Day on 21st September every year.

In another recent campaign, Dove (another Unilever brand) continues to build on its Real Beauty campaign, which started ten years ago and addresses the issue of body confidence and women’s insecurities.

Yet another beauty brand, Pantene (Procter & Gamble this time!), recently aired a campaign in the Philippines that got global attention thanks, in part, to Sheryl Sandberg’s having endorsed the video on her Facebook page. Like Axe, the link with the brand benefit is tenuous at best… but what a powerful insight it taps into.

So from encouraging hand washing to striving for world peace, from boosting female body confidence to highlighting gender inequalities, these brands are raising, and to some extent addressing, real issues in the world. They’re selling products, yes, and they’re making money, of course; but they are also managing to do some good.

What do you think? Are you unimpressed by what these global brands are doing? Should they do more? Or should they stick to what they know, selling soap, and forget all this doing good business?

Of course, the question of doing good and/or making money is not just a question for businesses, but also for individuals, as we make our career and life choices. But that’s a topic for another day…


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