Ordinary brands, extraordinary purpose: Why purpose is for everyone

Credit: Kash Goudarzi

It’s easy to see how aspirational lifestyle brands can adopt an inspirational purpose. Brands like Nike are, by definition, in the business of generating excitement. They deal in products that are cool and desirable, and market them by encouraging a desire in their customers to ‘be more’. From here, building an energising vision that drives innovation and inspires customers and employees to ‘be more for the world’ doesn’t seem too great a leap.

For other brands, ethics are absolutely integral to the type of product they sell, making purpose beyond profit seem entirely logical. Take the purposeful brand Ella’s Kitchen, for example. Their entire product range consists of organic baby food. As a company that sources only sustainable, soil-friendly ingredients, grown without pesticides, their role in building a better world is clear and obvious.

But if your products aren’t flashy or traditionally green, what then? What potential does your company have to embrace purpose if you sell something simple, understated and undeniably ordinary?

The great news is that being an everyday brand doesn’t exclude you from taking on an extraordinary purpose. The beautiful thing about purpose is that absolutely anything can be purposeful.

Even Vaseline.

How Vaseline became a force for good

Vaseline is neither a hip fashion brand nor a product that comes from an explicitly ethical standpoint. Yet Vaseline petroleum jelly has found a profound social purpose: a role in improving the lives and fortunes of the victims of poverty and war.

The story of how Vaseline found a higher purpose starts with two American dermatologists, Grace Bandow and Samar Jaber, who embarked on a medical mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in 2014. To their surprise, they found that Vaseline petroleum jelly played a role in almost every skin problem they dealt with in the camp of Zaatari – providing relief, or forming part of the treatment, for most patients.

“Prior to going on my first mission, I didn’t expect that skin health would have such an impact on the daily lives of the refugees,” Jaber later reported. “When you think of someone living as a refugee, you think they need food, water, and shelter. You see explosions and war on the news and you think they need surgeons and trauma care. That is certainly all true, but the harshness of the environment and the difficult living conditions exacerbate minor skin conditions, oftentimes affecting the refugees’ abilities to work, go to school or take care of their families.”

Burns, irritated scars, and cracked hands or feet could make everyday living an arduous task for refugees, but the simple act of applying Vaseline could help turn things around.

Bandow and Jaber co-wrote an article about their experiences in Jordan, which was picked up by the Vaseline company, who at the time were actively seeking opportunities for global outreach. With the aid of the dermatologists’ insight, the brand saw an opportunity to carve out an inspirational social role for Vaseline, in line with the purpose of its parent company Unilever: ‘to make sustainable living commonplace’.

For Unilever, sustainability goes beyond environmental impact to a world in which ‘everyone lives well’. Vaseline could make a powerful contribution to the wellbeing strand of Unilever’s purpose by helping to ‘heal the skin of people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world’.

As a result, Vaseline teamed up with international medical aid organisation Direct Relief to launch the Vaseline Healing Project. The initiative is providing aid to victims of conflict and natural disaster across the world in the form of petroleum jelly, dermatological care and other medical supplies. Two cents from every unit of Vaseline sold in the US goes towards funding the project, and last year, one million jars of Vaseline petroleum jelly were distributed.

Good for people… and profits

Purpose-driven initiatives like the Healing Project are as positive for business as they are for people, a fact not lost on Unilever. The company reports that integrating purpose-driven sustainability into brands like Vaseline is helping them reach new heights of consumer interest and engagement, which is having a powerful knock-on effect on business growth. In 2015, the company’s ‘Sustainable Living brands’ accounted for nearly half its growth, and grew faster than the rest of the business. All in all, the story of Vaseline and Unilever’s wider sustainability efforts make a powerful case for purpose indeed.

An unlikely hero: Interface carpet tiles

For other everyday brands, the opportunity for purpose comes not from the end-use of the products themselves, but the way they are sourced and manufactured.

Interface is a prime example. The world’s largest designer and maker of commercial carpet tiles has become a pioneer of sustainability in modern business, since announcing its intention in 1994 to become ‘the world’s first environmentally sustainable – and, ultimately, restorative – company’.

It’s sustainable vision is being achieved through radical product redesign and innovative solutions to reduce emissions and waste. One example is Net-Works – a solution to tackling the growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the poorest coastal communities in the world.

Through a partnership between Interface and the London Zoological Society, Net-Works enables fishing communities in developing countries to collect and sell discarded nylon fishing nets, many of which are salvaged from beaches or the ocean. These provide Interface with a source of recycled nylon to make carpet tiles, at the same time as boosting the income of local communities and giving them a long-term incentive to protect vulnerable coasts.

Like Unilever, Interface has seen its purpose-driven sustainability efforts bring about remarkable commercial benefits. Here’s how the late Ray Anderson, Interface’s founder and chairman, described the impact on his company.

“It’s turning out to be a better way. A better way to make a bigger profit. The amazing thing is here we are eleven years into this journey and our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they’ve ever been… [and] our people are motivated.”

Who would have expected a manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles to take on on such an extraordinary social and ecological mission? But as the stories of Interface and Vaseline go to show, purpose is for everyone.

About Graham Massey

Graham Massey is Business Head of The House, a purpose-driven business, culture and brand consultancy. To find out more, please visit www.thehouse.co.uk


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Graham Massey is the business head of The House, a consultancy that believes valuable businesses are born out of purpose.