Digital Purpose: A Reputation Driver for the Connected Age

By: Jeff Beringer, Global Head of Digital; Laura Sutphen, Head of Social Purpose

In January, Apple CEO Tim Cook found himself at the center of a storm. Two activist investors demanded the technology company do more to combat mobile addiction, particularly among children and teens. After intense media and consumer scrutiny, Apple agreed to make changes to help parents better manage screen time on the company’s blockbuster devices.

Today, virtually every business is in the midst of digital transformation. 

Technology is dramatically changing the way companies make and market products and interact with stakeholders. Brands that feed us, transport us, entertain us, and even heal us have all become de facto digital businesses. Not just hardware and software makers.

Most intentions of those embracing technology are pure: to deliver better experiences that people value, which, in turn, create business value and reward shareholders.

But a growing number of business leaders realize that digitization — even with the best intentions — can sometimes have unintended negative impacts on individuals or society at large. And these impacts have consequences for brand reputation.

CPG giant Unilever, which spends an estimated $2B on digital marketing each year, is addressing responsible use of technology head on. At the recent IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, company CMO Keith Weed put leading technology and media partners on notice. Unilever will pull digital marketing dollars from all platforms that create division in society or do not protect children.

Why? Because Unilever’s customers expect responsible use of technology. “It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on wellbeing, on democracy – and on truth itself,” Weed said. “As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands.”

Apple, Facebook, Unilever and many others are navigating a critical new area of corporate and brand reputation. At Golin, we call this Digital Purpose.

Digital Purpose is how every modern brand that leverages technology and data — in products, services, and marketing communications practices — keeps individual consumers and society at large safe from harm.

It is based on principles of responsibility, health and wellness, and safety. And for marketers and communicators, Digital Purpose has profound implications.

Digital Transformation Assessment

Digital Purpose requires companies to identify strengths and vulnerabilities in their own digital transformations. Businesses need to ask hard questions inside to understand how their own technologies might impact customers or society overall. This demands closer collaboration between internal PR, marketing and IT teams, which too often operate in silos today. Assessing the consequences of digitization helps companies prepare to manage crisis scenarios and also promote the positive effects of digital transformation more effectively.

Consider Uber. The company that transformed the transportation industry has been testing autonomous vehicles in several U.S. markets. Promoted as an innovation that could make transportation safer and even more accessible, Uber’s reputation was dealt a stunning blow recently when one of its self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian. Media outlets and consumers questioned whether the company adequately assessed risks, and if Uber put the public in peril by putting new technology on the streets too quickly. For many, the company’s Digital Purpose remains unclear or misaligned with expectations.

Sizing Up Partner Use of Data & Technology

While it’s important to assess strengths and vulnerabilities inside, it’s also critical to examine the impact of technology used by outside partners like media outlets and platforms which serve up messages to a brand’s trusting consumers. Today’s stakeholders care about the company we keep and expect high standards and ethical, safe practices.

Brands must constantly assess the use of technology by their partners too, because missteps by partners can quickly impact a company’s own reputation.

Telling Your Brand’s Story 

It’s not enough just to understand the impacts of digital transformation. Businesses must also transparently and proactively communicate how they’re using technology responsibly or actions they’re taking to improve. For companies with vulnerabilities or missteps, we should regard Digital Purpose as a new crisis management scenario, requiring preparation, resolution, and long-term repair. And for leaders which have a positive Digital Purpose story to tell, they’re well-served to share it proudly to stand out from competitors.

Agencies can play an important supporting role, assessing vulnerabilities as neutral outsiders. We can partner with marketers and communicators to tell their Digital Purpose stories openly and honestly, building trust over time. And we can often help connect the dots between IT teams on the front lines of innovation with communications and marketing professionals tasked with brand protection and promotion.

Back in the day, it was enough for companies to “do well by doing good” through philanthropy and volunteerism. But today, the pace of change in our world is dizzying. And brands have more of a responsibility than ever to marry a greater sense of purpose with their promise to stakeholders and consumers.

None of us can fully know all the long-term impacts of technology on our employees, customers, and the world around us. But our stakeholders expect us to pay attention, innovate responsibly, and communicate transparently about digital transformation.

They’ll reward us when we do.