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Proving purpose: how New Zealand companies can drive meaning from within

Society is constantly evolving, and whether those changes are to everyone’s tastes or not – everybody has a role to play in a changing world. In the last decade, most industries have taken strides towards achieving workplace equity for women and people of ethnic and sexual minorities – but how has that translated to their marketing? Caitlin Salter looks at whether New Zealand brands are being genuine when they position themselves as diverse and inclusive in their marketing, and how true brand purpose needs to be driven from the inside out.

If international examples have taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to brands celebrating diversity and inclusion, showing up is easy, but institutional change is hard. Brand campaigns that miss the mark quickly become labelled tone-deaf, and if intentions are anything other than genuine – they will be categorised as tokenism or merely lip-service.

In 2017 when Pepsi produced the ‘Live for Now’ campaign featuring Kendall Jenner – a white model of the Kardashian empire – offering a can of Pepsi to riot police during a ‘protest’, the reaction was one of disbelief. The sanitised scene appeared to imitate the Black Lives Matter movement, and while originally planned as the hero spot to a global campaign, the video was pulled after one day – but not before garnering worldwide attention.

Pepsi’s campaign was not only an over-simplification of the very real need to protest in a democratic society, it also tried to capitalise on the current atmosphere of civil unrest, without seeking genuine representation either within the company, or in the campaign.

More recently, Gillette’s 2019 ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign hit headlines and divided opinion the world over. While the message that men should set a positive example for the next generation by leaving toxic masculinity in the past was undoubtedly a positive one, some commentators questioned whether Gillette’s ad was merely jumping on the bandwagon in a #MeToo era.

Nike, on the other hand, writes diversity into its mission statement and has repeatedly pushed the boundaries in advertising. It made global headlines in 2018 when it featured Colin Kaepernick as the lead in the 30th anniversary of their famous ‘Just Do It’ campaign. Kaepernick was the first NFL athlete to take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, a protest movement that had major repercussions for his career.

The campaign hit a different note, and while those in opposition to the protest were quick to cut ties with the brand, others praised Nike for living up to its brand promise.

Change on the home front

The Nike example paved the way for New Zealand franchise, Stirling Sports, to realign its own core values, and position its brand with renewed purpose.

In late 2018, Stirling Sports launched an integrated campaign with Motion Sickness, designed to set the tone for a new era for the brand. The ‘Our Heritage’ campaign featured young New Zealanders playing sports, hanging out and exploring their home towns while talking about Aotearoa, their lives, passions and dreams.

At the time the campaign launched, Motion Sickness founder and creative director Sam Stuchbury said ‘Our Heritage’ was the beginning of a new brand positioning for the retailer, and authenticity was at its heart.

“… we thought about what heritage means to Stirling Sports but also to the people of New Zealand and more specifically the young kids of New Zealand… it was finding a way to give an honest representation of younger people within New Zealand and we let them have a voice for themselves.”

By July 2019, Stirling Sports was ready to release a new campaign celebrating the diversity and inclusion it hopes to represent. The ‘Prove Them Wrong’ campaign breaks down the stereotypes weighing down different activities and shows real New Zealanders embracing the talents that some people have told them they weren’t right to pursue.

The insults include ‘too gay’, ‘too old’, ‘too girly’, ‘too brown’, and ‘too crippled’ – and were all real insults their speakers received. No one in the ad is an actor, rather real people who answered the call on Stirling Sport’s Facebook page.

Stirling Sports marketing manager Emma Spratt says the campaign was a natural response to the retailer’s close alignment with brands like Nike.

“Working with Motion Sickness has challenged us to re-approach our brand communication to ensure we are engaging with our core target audience, which is ultimately Gen Z.

“For myself personally, and from the feedback and engagement we’ve had from our consumers and the talent we worked with, the ‘Prove Them Wrong’ campaign has felt like a natural progression, given the level in which we are engaging with our customers.”

Spratt says the new brand positioning speaks to Stirling Sports consumers and what they experience in society at the moment. That experience is different for everyone, and Stirling Sports has been careful to represent that.

When looking into the fashion of sport, it was clear it was not limited to sport alone, Spratt says. There has been a cultural shift in recent years and the popularity of activewear has skyrocketed – more and more people are choosing to express themselves with traditionally sports-centric clothing.

“It’s the culture around sport, which can be anything from music, to fashion, to the daily lifestyle people lead. It was important for us to feature a diverse range of individuals from different facets of our brand and celebrate them.

“Activewear and sportswear are worn by all cultures and walks of life. It’s so easy for us to show diversity [in marketing]because it’s the natural progression from our consumers.”

The next two campaigns in the pipeline with Motion Sickness will continue to drive this message, and the team are looking at ways to drive more momentum with touch-points in-store. Spratt says creativity and inclusion are written into the Stirling Sports values and vision.

Not only does the retailer have a diverse range of customers, every franchisee also brings a different perspective to the table. Generation Z is an incredibly savvy online customer-base – and will not stand for disingenuous marketing gimmicks, Spratt says.

“Consumers aren’t dumb. You have to genuinely want to connect with your consumer to be able to get greater traction with them. There’s a real sweet spot in how we can work with our customers, not just as a brand campaign, but we can be a resource and a leader to the young market.”

Stirling Sports is not the only retailer to make a splash with its brand purpose this year. In February, Hallenstein Brothers divided public opinion when it put model Laura Evans at the centre of the 2019 installment of the long-running ‘The Power of the Suit’ campaign. The TVC featured two men and Evans sharing how wearing a suit makes them feel confident and powerful.

While gender is not mentioned in the spot, or in any of the accompanying point-of-sale collateral, some social media commenters were quick to criticise the decision. Some said it wasn’t right for a men’s clothing store to advertise to women – especially when Hallenstein’s sister brand is Glassons; while others accused the retailer of jumping on the bandwagon of inclusion.

However, much of the reaction was positive, and many women were pleased to see representation at a store they have shopped at for years. At the time, general manager Glenn Hunter said the company wanted everybody to feel comfortable to shop at Hallenstein’s, regardless of their gender.

“Hallenstein Brothers has always been an inclusive brand, with clothing made for people of all shapes and sizes.”

Rocking the corporate boat

While creative industries have traditionally erred on the progressive side, corporates have tended to drag their feet when it comes to making real changes to the male-focused status quo.

The ‘Diversity Dividend Report’, a Westpac-commissioned 2017 Deloitte study of 500 New Zealand businesses, showed that only 29 percent of leadership roles were held by women. The report said 49 percent of businesses cited ‘lack of talent’ as a barrier to achieving gender balance in leadership roles – a bias that prevents the economy from growing by a potential $881 million.

Westpac tackled this issue in December 2017’s ‘Women in Leadership’ campaign with FCB Media. The bold campaign sent a firm message about women’s under-representation – with 29 percent of the New Zealand Herald’s content missing from its front page. There were no images and no byline to the cover article, which also had chunks of text missing.

Acting general manager of consumer banking and wealth Gina Dellabarca says the project aimed to expose the gender gap in leadership.

“We think gender equality should be a priority for businesses wanting to boost their diversity of thought, experience and skills. We know that what gets measured gets done.”

But it wasn’t just about shining a light on the problem and Westpac didn’t want to pay lip-service to a very real problem in New Zealand. Instead, the bank committed to its own target of 50 percent of leadership roles at Westpac NZ being filled by women.

As of June 2019, more than half (51 percent) of the leadership team are women, a figure that has risen from the low 30s. Feedback on Westpac’s pledge was largely positive, with the bank praised for tackling tough issues, and Dellabarca says employees were proud the company was fighting for such a worthy milestone in gender equality – and the number job applicants increased significantly in the months that followed.

“We’re really proud of the steps we’ve taken towards making our bank more inclusive and diverse,” Dellabarca says.

“That said, we recognise our work is never done – there are still opportunities for us to work on.”

According to Dellabarca what Westpac does and says externally is a direct reflection of the company’s identity and mission of helping customers financially to grow a better New Zealand.

“We value having an employee-driven culture that allows for robust decisions and diversity of ideas.

“We look to engage with our customers and the public in ways that are clear and genuine but compelling, and always linked back to our goals of helping to grow communities while being a responsible, sustainable business.”

Over at ASB, February 2019’s ‘The Is Us’ campaign, launched with True, didn’t leave any room for doubt on where ASB stood on the issue of diversity. Fronted by Auckland writer and performer Courtney Sina Meredith, the campaign shared the message of diversity through Meredith’s self-penned poem.

The poem includes the lines: “We are the land, we are the dance of light on water, our voices weave together constellations of belonging”, and “We are many hands hoisting tomorrow’s sun, our truths are forever in bloom”.

The poem was accompanied by images of ASB staff and customers enjoying different events such as Diwali, Big Gay Out and Auckland Lantern Festival.

ASB general manager of marketing Shane Evans says the campaign was born out of ASB’s focus on diversity and inclusion – which has been at the heart of the bank for years.

“We wanted to unify the activity we’d been doing internally and bring it to our external audience. The campaign focuses on the inclusion side, and we wanted to pull together a piece of work that was a celebration of our people.”

Evans says ‘This Is Us’ is an example of ASB being true to itself and its culture. The bank has had a focus on the LGBTQI+ community for a long time and makes a concerted effort to be involved in the cultural events and festivals of its staff and customers.

Inclusion and diversity have been a particularly strong focus for the last seven years, Evans says – but diversity is written into the bank’s DNA. During the development of ‘This Is Us’, researchers found that of ASB’s first 10 customers in 1847, five were Māori.

“It’s not a big deal at ASB – that’s the biggest compliment we can give, that it’s just part of who we are.”

A new light was shone on the ‘This Is Us’ campaign when the Christchurch mosque terror attack occurred just a month after its release. Evans says the campaign was paused immediately after the tragedy, while the country went into mourning. It was important to ASB that people knew the ad was developed for authentic reasons and not as a way of capitalising on the attack.

“After a while, we thought the words were more important than ever. New Zealand needs to be reminded of these things. Celebrating our people and inclusion is a big focus for us.”

The campaign was particularly well-received internally, which Evans says was in part due to the fact that ASB staff saw themselves represented on-screen.

“The words really resonated with people and I’m really glad we focused on being inclusive and demonstrating that ASB is made up of different people from different backgrounds.

“Diversity of people leads to a diversity of thought, and we want our customers to be reflected back in the people who work for us.”

Time for change

It’s no secret that Spark, and its predecessor Telecom, has had a serious workplace culture problem in the last decade.

When seven-year chief executive Simon Moutter left the role in July, he spoke candidly to Idealog about the failures Spark had made in the past to ensure a safe work environment for its staff.

In the time since he took up the reins in 2012, Spark has moved to an agile working model, but deep change was needed to bring the telco up-to-standard in the modern world. One of the biggest transformations was an overhaul of its culture of diversity and inclusion.

Spark human resource lead partner Rhonda Koroheke started leading the diversity and inclusion strategy at the company three years ago. Spark commissioned an independent consultant to conduct a review of internal culture in 2017, which Koroheke says was difficult, but important, reading.

“It said we were gladiatorial, and aggressive behaviours were on display all the time. There was definitely a ‘boy’s club’ culture and there was an element that the behaviours were so inappropriate that we couldn’t believe it was the same company.”

Once the lid was off the problem, Koroheke and her team set out on the difficult process of implementing immediate and necessary change. One such measure was the introduction of the internal ‘blue heart’ campaign – a simple blue pin worn on staff lanyards to demonstrate an individual’s commitment to creating an inclusive organisation.

“In the old days, we were still operating in the mindset of a traditional, hierarchical way of working – where you had to measure everything from a business perspective. But when we realised the error of our ways and that inclusion was really the gold we were after, we quickly changed tack.”

In a company of more than 5,000 employees, 3,000 have pledged their commitment to the initiative. Originally developed off the back of Moutter demonstrating the need to lead from the heart, the blue hearts invite people to have open conversations without any ongoing animosity.

The programme has also changed the language in the work environment, and when people see unsavoury behaviours occurring, they’ll say: “Well that’s not very blue heart, is it?”.

With the change to agile Spark has also minimised chances of people getting left-out and being underrepresented in meetings, by working in ‘squads’ of up to 10 people. Each person has a different function within the squad and there’s no room to hide – so everyone has to contribute.

“In the old world, you’d have a cast of thousands going to meetings and no one would get to say anything,” Koroheke says. “We’ve given people licence to be open and honest, but in a safe environment.”

There are other elements of inclusion that Spark has worked hard to improve, from breaking down barriers with its LGBTQI+ community, and putting measures in place to help people maintain mental health, to strengthening its commitment to Te Ao Māori and normalising te re Māori. As a New Zealand company, the latter point was of particular importance.

“We need to do it in a manner that is really authentic because otherwise, you’re just going to look stupid. We’ve worked really hard to make it meaningful for everybody.”

Although Koroheke’s job is internally focused, she says by virtue of having inclusion and diversity in the workplace, the external messaging naturally reflect that.

“I need to ensure that we’re being absolutely honest to the core that what we’re trying to deliver is about us, and not because we want to showcase it externally. If it comes through the external point-of-view, that’s a bonus for us.”

In February 2018, Spark launched its first ‘Thanks To You’ campaign with Colenso BBDO, featuring Christchurch couple Chris Hunter and Marc Hobson and their son Lucas Hunter-Hobson. The campaign launched Spark’s partnership with OutLine, a confidential telephone support and face-to-face counselling service available to the LGBTQI+ community.

Moutter told Idealog he hadn’t seen anything about the campaign until he saw it play on television – something that would never have been able to happen at Spark even three years earlier.

“That’s the level of trust we have in our people,” Koroheke says. “This campaign played out organically and Simon could trust the people in the organisation to make the right decision on behalf of the company.”

Spark did face some backlash for its campaign, but it didn’t stop the telco from launching a fresh OutLine campaign in 2019 – this time with Rotorua mother and son, Dee and Hunter. In ‘Let’s Talk’, Dee explains her experience of Hunter coming out as transgender, and how through the worries and fear, her relationship with Hunter grew stronger.

“I feel really sorry for the people who don’t accept the changes that the world is going through, but that’s their choice. The rest of us are open-minded enough to know that this is progress,” Koroheke says.

While Spark still has a long way to go, Koroheke hopes its ever-improving workplace environment will continue to flow through to its marketing. She is also happy to own when the company doesn’t get it right – and knows she can’t know everything about every community. To continue to make Spark inclusive, Koroheke is developing an internal diversity database – to understand what background employees bring with them.

“Part of the success we’re experiencing at Spark is that we’re open about the fact that we don’t know everything. We will ask for help from our staff and generally, people jump at the opportunity to offer advice and support.

“We still have a long way to go. This isn’t a perfect world, but my goal is to continue to create a working environment where people can enjoy what they do, and that includes being open and honest with each other, and being accepted by everyone for who you are.”

Brand purpose or activism?

But can a brand be purpose-led without slipping into activism? The short answer is yes. DJE Holdings global strategy director David Armano said in an op-ed for Ad Week that while the answer is yes, the caveat is that the brand must know its place in the world, and be consistent with the values it puts forth.

“Standing for something bigger than yourself doesn’t mean inserting yourself into every cultural debate or ones that quickly become politicised… It does come with risk but also with potential reward, depending on the motivation and authenticity of the brand’s words and deeds.”

In 21st century New Zealand, there is now a demand for a shake-up of the old world order: and consumers can bring a disingenuous brand move to its knees within minutes of launch. Brands who are succeeding at making meaningful marketing campaigns and brand positioning, looked first to develop sturdy internal structures for diversity and inclusion – and then let the celebration of inclusion spread organically to their external messaging.

And as consumers smarten up daily, it seems all brands will have to look to make change from within, or get out of the way.

This was originally published on StopPress.

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