CSR Matters: Harnessing Emotional Insights to Bring Brand Purpose to Life

A Q&A with Billee Howard, CEO, BRANDthropologie

When it comes to harnessing the power of emotional insights to bring a brand's purpose to life and using cognitive technologies to purposefully shape a brand's future, few are savvier than Billee Howard, the Founder and Chief Engagement Officer of Brandthropologie.

For more than twenty years, she has successfully positioned some of the world's leading companies and C-suite executives and helped brands transform storytelling into a vital business competency that elicits authentic engagement and revenue growth. She's also the author of "We-Commerce: How to Create, Collaborate, and Succeed in the Sharing Economy," which highlights a world in which culture and commerce collide in unprecedented ways in an economy driven by entrepreneurialism and creativity.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Howard the same day she announced with Centiment -- the market leader in AI powered emotional intelligence -- a groundbreaking JV powered by IBM Watson that will enable them to create the first-ever turnkey solution designed to help businesses bring brand purpose to life in ways that connect directly to revenue.

What follows is a transcribed Q&A from our discussion (slightly edited for length and clarity). Ms. Howard's insights are worth reading from top to bottom as you'll be wise to learn what a leading futurist has to say about how brands can best position themselves for the future. I've additionally offered at the bottom, "Five Key Takeaways for Bringing Brand Purpose to Life."

Ryan Rudominer: Let's start by talking about the power of purpose and its impact on business and its long-term growth strategy. What can you tell me about that?

Billee Howard: I like to think of it this way. There's a tremendous amount of disruption that we've seen in the business landscape coming from both the lens of culture and commerce. Technology, the changing face of the consumer, and high levels of disruption are making it very difficult to stand out and compete. In these uncertain times that we're living in, there's a growing sense of increased responsibility in the area of moral leadership by CEOs, as well as an increased desire for business to step in and give back to the world as much as the bottom line.

If you combine these two things plus the fact that we're in a collaborative economy, you come up with an entirely new environment where businesses need to compete and need to be able to emotionally engage with people- whether they are employees, customers, or consumers. Today, everyone is a customer by and large.

Brand Purpose is emerging as a way to blend brand and business, as well as brand and strategy to create experiences for people. That's on the marketing side of the house. On the business side of the house, it's becoming a driver of a company's long-term growth and performance.

I think a lot of people get confused when they think about sustainability, CSR, and cause. This is because, while these things were important in the past, they were much more compartmentalized functions inside of organizations. They were not day-to-day components to business strategy. I think that that's what the modern definition of what brand purpose is. It's a driver of both business and brand. And the smartest brands and leaders are figuring out ways of using it as a driver of growth.

RR: That's an important distinction. Are there particular examples of companies that you've seen doing it the right way?

BH: Yes, I just did an interview with the new CEO of Seventh Generation, Joey Bergstein, who was the CMO, then became the COO, and is now the CEO. His progression is an excellent embodiment of what I'm talking about, this fusion of brand and business together around the idea of purpose as a driver of growth.

Seventh Generation is one of the most purposeful brands in the word, as well as one of the most successful in the realm of household goods.. It was purchased by Unilever last year for many, many millions of dollars..

Seventh Generation connects and resonates with consumers, in large part, because its very name identifies its purpose - to leave the world a better place for the seven generations that follow. So yes, at the end of the day, they focus on the "what," creating household products. But the core of who they are and what drives their ethos and engagement with all of their constituencies is this idea of a grander purpose.

They're a great example of a brand who does it right.

RR: Yes, absolutely! What would you say are some of the consequences of businesses who don't include better storytelling in their campaigns or marketing efforts or who do the opposite of what Seventh Generation has done?

BH: People today are looking for something much different in the consumer buying experience. No longer is the price point the primary deciding factor in purchasing. What causes somebody to choose option A over option B is the "brand experience," which can only happen through powerful stories infused with brand voice and purpose. This helps achieve emotional engagement. So much of what brand purpose does is give consumers a way to connect and engage around an aspirational idea. It gives them a sense of belonging.

It also allows them to make a statement. This plays into the idea of consumers today voting with their wallet. Brands who don't focus on emotional engagement won't do very well, in my opinion, because consumers today are looking to take part in experiences rather than just buying things.

RR: That's a great point. You've literally written the book on We-commerce. Can you talk a little bit about your book and maybe share some of its lessons and what drove you to write it?

BH: I started to think about this in 2008 when the world fell apart around the financial meltdown. I believe that's the year that the seeds of everything happening today were planted. Other factors have certainly led to it, from the recent presidential election to this state of catastrophe with natural disasters taking place all over the world, but at the end of the day, what happened in 2008 was that the people lost trust in big business and big government. The power began to shift from the few to the many. We began to trust in one another.

It's when this idea of peer-to-peer, collaborative economy thinking was born, which has manifested itself into a lot of the different things that we're seeing today. We-commerce is all about this idea that we're all better in service of the collective "we" rather than the singular "me."

Part of this idea of "we" has fueled an increased emphasis on creativity and sharing. As a result, any business person today, in my view, needs to think about themselves as an artist of business You can't be in business in today's society if you don't have a sense of creativity throughout your organization, realizing it as a currency of business and collaboration, and as strategy, not just a function of optics. Consumers today want to take part in something. They want to engage with a brand that has purpose and a story. Storytelling is a vital business competency in today's environment of "we," and it needs to be treated as such by moving it from the end of the supply chain to the beginning, and recognizing it as a critical component of success.

RR: Is there a case study that comes to mind where you helped a brand do storytelling from the beginning and inform business strategy and growth?

BH: Yes. We can't really talk about specific clients but we've helped people do exactly what we're talking about internally and externally.. Find their sense of purpose, find a way to connect it to business + brand, and then use it as an aspirational theme with which to engage and drive growth. Today, storytelling needs to begin at home. You need to infuse your culture with a sense of purpose and belonging, which will then halo externally. We did that for a major global consulting firm. We also worked with a major food service firm to introduce the idea of purposeful business to their employees and then to communicate that direction to their clients..

Bringing brand purpose to life is something that we're doing more and more everyday with every partnership. We're now taking those ideas that I've just talked about to the next level, through the use of artificial and emotional intelligence, and trying to make these ideas accessible to the C-Suite, which just makes things a whole lot more interesting.

RR: Speaking of partnerships, I'd love to talk to you about your new exciting joint venture. What can you tell our readers about the Emotional Intelligence Accelerator platform, and what it allows you to do for businesses?

BH: Sure. It's really exciting, because marketers and business people in general, are looking to try and understand this new world of AI. It's very big and it's very overwhelming. What our solutions do is make it accessible to senior leadership in a turn key solution fashion.

Our new JV aligns us with Centiment, an IBM With Watson company, which has their own neuro-based algorithms, to help brands and business best avail themselves to how these technologies can help them harness emotional intelligence to succeed in the future of business. This technology can help people see around the corner and understand where the market is going, so it's a great tool to have.

Most specifically, in our first offering, we developed an end-to-end solution that helps CMOs bring brand purpose to life in ways that connect directly to revenue and help move it from a marketing ploy to a fundamental component of business strategy.

That's really exciting because it's taking brand purpose, fusing it with emotional intelligence and creating a solution that is the ultimate in brain-powered business + brand. We're among the first also to fuse the creative process with the power of artificial intelligence. What you get out of that are content experiences that are engineered to land right in the sweet spot of emotional engagement. They can be measured in real time and connected to increased ROI revenue. We are getting a pretty good response from that as the solution becomes an integrated end-to-end solution. For more on this, check out: https://brandthropologie.com/work-with-us .

RR: Awesome. Lastly, as a futurist, can you speak about some of the top issues and trends that you are seeing driving change in the marketplace today, and what the future looks like?

BH: What I can say is that there are numerous changes that are going to drive the landscape in the year ahead. The first, obviously, is what we've been talking about, being emotionally intelligent and emotionally informed. I think that brands have to be a lot more intelligent when they're talking to their key constituencies so that they can really cut through the clutter. Other key ideas we need to keep in mind are how we can turn purpose into a vital business competency, along with storytelling.

We're in an experience economy, and the old rules of engagement no longer apply. You have to recognize that experiences are what is defining success in the marketplace. You then have to figure out how to create the right emotional engagements to design what you're doing with the heart and mind. In this age of experience, everyone is a customer.

Whether you're a B2B player, a B2C player, or you're talking to your employees, you have to view everyone through that lens and look to optimize experiences that connect and resonate in ways that elicit specific calls-to-action. Again, purpose is not something new, but it's evolving to be a critical driver of business, and I think that the big takeaway for next year, and now, is that empathy is the new currency. If you can't be purposeful and you can't put forth messages in an empathic way, your message is going to fall on deaf ears. I think that that also really gets to something that's not going away anytime soon, which is how brands factor in inclusion and diversity on a broad scale.

The last thing I'd like to discuss is artificial intelligence. People hear that term, and think it's a scary thing. But if you can realize that the immediate future is actually going to be about augmented intelligence, then it will help your business to be more successful in constantly evolving times. Augmented intelligence is the idea that machines won't replace men. They'll augment their abilities. This is something that will be discussed and seen more frequently in the year ahead.

"Five Key Takeaways for Bringing Brand Purpose to Life."

  1. In these uncertain times, there's an increased desire for business to step in and give back to the world as much as the bottom line. As Howard explained to me, "Brand purpose has emerged as a way to blend brand and business, as well as brand and strategy to create experiences for people" on the marketing side. On the business side, it has become "a driver of a company's long-term growth and performance."
  2. People today are looking for something much different in the consumer buying experience. According to Howard, "no longer is the price point the primary deciding factor in purchasing. What causes somebody to choose option A over option B is the brand experience, which can only happen through powerful stories infused with brand voice and purpose."
  3. To succeed in business in today's environment you must come to view creativity as a currency of business, collaboration, and strategy; not just a function of optics. As Howard put it, "Consumers today want to take part in something. They want to engage with a brand that has purpose and a story. Storytelling is a vital business competency in today's 'we' environment and it needs to be treated as such by moving it from the end of the supply chain to the beginning, and recognizing it as a critical component of success."
  4. Empathy is the new currency and that won't be going away anytime soon. According to Howard, "If you can't be purposeful and you can't put forth messages in an empathic way, your message is going to fall on deaf ears."
  5. We're in an experience economy, and the old rules of engagement no longer apply. As Howard explained, "Whether you're a B2B player, a B2C player, or you're talking to your employees, you have to view everyone through that lens and look to optimize experiences that connect and resonate in ways that elicit specific calls-to-action."

What do you think? Do you agree with these five trends?



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