Myriam Sidibe was recently named Professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine author of Brands on a Mission. She used to work in the aid sector but moved on to Unilever where she spent 15 years and where she was responsible for driving forward a global handwashing initiative which has reached an incredible 1 billion people.

She was joined at Social Enterprise Futures by Liam Black who interviewed her on the relationship between brands and purpose and on her own experiences and journey. Here are some of the key takeaways from the session.

Seeing people as consumers not beneficiaries

Professor Sidibe left the aid world with a view that it was a sector rife with problems. What appealed about the corporate world, for all its own obvious failings, was how it saw people as consumers not beneficiaries. Unilever was using its position to appeal to the same rural women as aid organisations but seeing them as consumers not just as the recipients of aid.

The importance of believing in your sense of purpose.

Start with your goal even if you’re not fully sure how to get there – this is a characteristic of social entrepreneurs and what is vital is that you have “an undying belief in your own purpose.” If you have your goal and purpose then you will find a way to achieve it. With Unilever’s handwashing programme it was initially thought that marketing would be the main tool to reach the most people, however the real impact came through actual face-to-face behaviour change programmes. The creation of Global Handwashing Day also gave the campaign a public face and a hook to get more people and partners on board.  

What kind of systemic change are you trying to achieve?

Linked to this, it is vital that you know what your objective is when you’re looking to create positive change. Know this well as it is what your consumers will hold you to account on. You need to galvanize internal support within your organisation and ensure that staff see purpose as an investment and not a cost.

Corporates can be part of the problem but they are also part of the solution

There is change happening in the corporate world. Investors are talking about a shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism, as emphasised by the CEO of Blackrock, Larry Fink’s statement that companies must show how they make a positive contribution to society.

Myriam held that the scale you can achieve in the corporate world if things align right in regard to resources, leadership and mission, is unparalleled. However, this is often not the case. Social enterprises can however often drive innovation which corporations, being more cumbersome, cannot.

The key is how can you have a real business model that can alleviate suffering and marketing is central to this.