How purpose enables great marketing campaigns: Interview with Grace Palos and Amanda Gordon (Future Super)

This week, Warren Davies, the managing director of All or Nothing, interviews some of the team behind ‘ethical’ superannuation fund Future Super – a company that goes against the grain by actively seeking sustainable investments and staunchly not investing in fossil fuels. 

He speaks with Future Super Head of Creative Amanda Gordon and CMO Grace Palos about why businesses need to seriously consider their social contract with the planet and how technology and the democratisation of information has changed everything. 

Warren: I feel like in 2021 we’re asking businesses to reassert what their license to operate is. I’m curious to know if you’re seeing more of that kind of attitude or kind of conversation either in your personal life or in your work life at Future Super?

CMO Grace Palos

Grace: I can see it in both. I’ve actually seen it throughout my career because as a communications and marketing specialist I find it nearly impossible to market an industry that can’t explain why it exists for society. How do you communicate with people if you don’t have that?  Consumers are waking up to the fact that we as a society give businesses the license to operate, right? So there’s a change in power dynamic and an understanding of power between consumers and businesses. I think this has been a long time coming. Smartphones had a lot to do with it, because of the amount of information that we now have as consumers, now you’re really seeing the effects of it on businesses to understand that they need that for consumers to trust them, to use them. And that they won’t otherwise.

Yeah, sure. It’s kind of like if a few million of us get together and decide we’re not buying that sneaker, it can happen really quickly. Like, it can happen overnight and you’ll still do business and get customers, but it’ll never be the same again. So you don’t have to prove your value, but it’s much better if you do. And we’d prefer it if you did.

Grace: Yeah. And it’s a much greater brand risk. If you can’t prove it, you might be marketing yourself in one way or your advertising messages might be saying one thing, but consumers have so much other information that they can use to assess you, that you have to have that reason for existence. And it has to be embedded into how you operate as a company for that marketing to work. But also to mitigate that risk that someone can find out something very easily if it’s not in line.

Head of Creative Amanda Gordon

Amanda: We’re at a point in time where we’re facing a climate crisis. Every year we get closer to 2030 or 2040 – there’s heightened awareness that it’s actually going to take totally different thinking to stop something of this size coming at us. I find those conversations come up all the time for me. There’s the caveat that I’m probably in an echo chamber of people who care about the planet and marketers who probably think similarly to how I do. But I also think that it’s hard to look past the fact that if businesses aren’t looking after their social contract with a planet, they’re not going to have a business in the future. So it’s good business to be thinking about this stuff. The conversations are happening all around me.

Do you feel some businesses get wrong-footed in this way? 

Grace: It catches a lot of people out who worked in businesses when consumers didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. They’re used to being able to have a one-way conversation and really guide the message and that information is far more democratic now than it ever has been. And so they’re not able to do that anymore. And I think how change happens is sometimes you don’t even notice when it’s happening. So you’re kind of on the other side of it now where they’re seeing the impact of it. And they’re like, when did this moment happen?

That for me is like ‘health’ – in how we’re moving and where we’re moving to as a society. When I see a lot of this stuff is hitting friction points or almost climactic points within society, we’re really seeing the polarity. Being part of societal discussions that are very open, wild and intense shows progress. Because it’s intense and because it’s happening out in the open, it pushes us forward. Whereas if it’s hidden, it’s very hard to change.

Do you think it’s been warmly received in terms of the marketing or agency community, the notion ‘we can do more’ or ‘we can make money and be sensitive to people and planet’? 

Amanda: People come down really hard on Simon Sinek. And I understand that, you know, his thing is: ‘People don’t buy what you do people buy why you do it’. At the end of the day I need, that’s why I get toilet paper that works for me. But then you have someone like Who Gives A Crap? that comes along and they actually have changed their entire business to have a social responsibility. So I think it gets a really bad rap, but I think that purpose is actually most useful for inside the organisation. 

A consumer doesn’t necessarily like your mission statement, but I think it was Peter Drucker in the sixties that started to talk about knowledge workers and the role that alignment inside of business has for knowledge workers in getting them to row in the same direction. So I think that it gets paid out a lot, but I do think it has a big role. And I find that because we are so clearly aligned on it at Future Super, it makes decision-making, especially for the long-term, so much easier. We’re not going over tactics. It’s about how to get the job done in the long-term.

Grace: People are leaning into it, thinking about it, discussing it in the marketing and advertising community in Australia. I also think from a marketing and strategy point of view, if companies have a strong purpose, it’s normally a differentiator that makes it easier to achieve the business goals. The more that they are [lean into purpose], the easier it is to market and the easier it is to market at a strategic level versus just a tactical level.

Almost all ad channels are saturated right now. Consumers have got advertisements coming out of their ears! I think the purpose to me is actually such a beautiful bastion of how you connect with the right audience that actually wants what you are offering rather than just advertising and hitting eyeballs. Take superannuation for example, we exist to deliver a prosperous future free from climate change and inequality. Our brand campaigns are about getting people out to the climate strikes, on gender equality of ASX 100 companies, on policy that allows people to take their money out of superannuation. It’s actually the purpose that enables us as marketers to lead those campaigns. The output is that we show how we are different from other super funds to consumers.

A profit motive is one way business can be encouraged into the right markets, we’re seeing that with renewables right now – does it matter how businesses arrive in the right place? 

Grace: If it’s the reason that you exist – yes. If it’s bigger than yourself or your company. Future Super wants to have a huge impact on climate action. We still need to be able to exist in a competitive business landscape. And if a means to do that is we show this long-term vision of why we are here – let’s do it. I actually think some of the problems might be from thinking of all these things as separate pieces, because they’re not, right? It’s one single narrative that flows through, which is: how do you show customers you’re different? How do you clarify your point of view on the world and use purpose as a way to do that versus at the tactical level?

How do you do that month to month Amanda? Make a fairly dry product that’s very long-term exciting and motivating for people in the short term? 

Amanda: That’s the big challenge because we have a product that you can’t see. How do you show that and how do you make that appealing to people? One of the things that we’re doing is talking about the size of super (total managed funds). If you start talking about $3 trillion and ‘percentages’ and ‘fees’ it very quickly becomes boring. The way that we’ve started talking about it is talking about the power that you have and kind of using cultural milestones or markers that people know. So, the total wealth of Jeff Bezos or the market cap of Facebook, Tesla and Google combined.

People understand that those companies are very powerful. If you add those all up, it’s the same size as the total of our shared super funds. I think it’s about getting creative with how you communicate. I have spent the last few years working in agencies on different brands where unfortunately if you are purpose-led or you’re an environmentally-led kind of business, it seems like you get second rate marketing or you can’t communicate creatively. And I don’t really know why that is, but I think it’s just the comms challenge. It’s exciting. The job is to make it interesting.

Maybe that’s a generational shift as well. For many years financial services had been bought and sold on trust, diligence and performance. And now it’s sort of an existential thing: where our money is and what it’s doing has a huge impact on our lives and the planet we’re a part of. Milton Friedman said business has only one responsibility, which is to “use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game” – do you think this holds true today and what are the rules of the game?

Grace: Each business defines the game that they are playing. Different games are defined by who you ask. For consumers and for our members the rules of the game absolutely are that our business has to be not harming the climate and potentially for our diehards, actively taking climate action. Those aren’t the rules of the game for every business, but each business and their consumers get to make their own decisions. The rules of the game differ by the consumer and the rules of the game for the business is you need a consumer base that is willing and wants to play by the same kind of rules.

Yeah, sure. That’s interesting. It makes you wonder where people look for leadership and direction on this.

Grace: Consumers set the rules of the game because if businesses don’t have consumers, they cannot exist. I mean, I work in marketing, right? I think customers are the most important thing to a business. If customers aren’t playing your game, you’re not going to be playing it for very long.

Amanda: Yeah, I think in addition to customers, it’s your shareholders, right? And shareholder primacy has been the hallmark of how public corporations have to operate in recent decades. If how the company operates isn’t serving the interests of their shareholders, you’re going to have a problem. And I think in our case, people are realising that they are shareholders as well as customers. 

In terms of long-term brand and business building vs short-term activation, what’s the value in optimising for the short term?

Grace: Way too many marketers are short-term focused.The reason for that is they see their job as the immediate metric. So they pay the costs for bringing people in. For most businesses that is not your job. If you were to ask the board, your job is to build the company’s position in market so that it has long-term profitability. But there are too many marketers who don’t approach their jobs strategically. They approach it like a product growth job. And the reason that is problematic is most of the time, if you’re just focused on that immediate metric, you’re making trade-offs that harm the long-term.

So you would say: let’s do a campaign this month where we’re going to be able to get this one spike… but it’s going to be a once-off. And you’re going to put all your effort into doing this one-off thing versus like a long-term growth engine, where if there’s no one driving that one campaign, it doesn’t matter because you’ve already built this engine of which I think is primarily organic. You have to be focused on organic growth because otherwise you just constantly need to be injecting more and more money into advertising and into a single campaign.

Amanda, how do you make the long term look interesting in the short term day to day, week to week? 

Amanda: The thing we have to think about is what’s relevant to people and 2100 may not feel relevant to some people. What does feel relevant for us? Things like being angry at fossil fuel companies, feeling really overwhelmed by all of the things that they do to try and mitigate the climate crisis and underplay it. That’s the stuff that we tap into. What are people already talking about? What are they already doing? And then how can we find our place in that conversation? Trying to do something foreign that people don’t care about isn’t going to work. We try different things and once we find something that resonates, we ask, ‘What actually resonated about that?’ There’s something in here, when we talk about ‘power’, it resonates with people, let’s explore that. We can spend too much time [in marketing] trying to ram something down people’s throats, and we’re not listening to what people are actually responding to.

Grace: Most of the time we’d talk about the year 2050 or super as a product. Yes, you will see the wealth in 2050, and you will access that wealth in 2050, but today things are happening with your super. It is being invested in companies that are operating all around you. It likely owns some of the buildings that you’re in each day, the transport that you’re on. And so we want to elevate that message because that actually delivers on our purpose, which is let’s use money to solve the climate crisis. People need to understand, or at least we need to rip apart the opacity of how much power super has within society.

Take fossil fuels this past year. We obviously haven’t been messing in fossil fuels since we started. We never will be. And that meant that when oil prices tanked as all the planes got grounded and we stopped driving due to the pandemic, our members didn’t lose any money at that moment because they weren’t invested in oil. Our long-term view works today as well.

Is that something that you can sort of pretty easily tap into as you are crafting ideas with the team – the notion that ‘this is true for our people and it will help us find more people like this’?

Amanda: Leaning into mentality attracts the kind of people who want our product so we’re really upfront and honest about it. Something we talk about a lot is greenwashing and that greenwashing is super common in our industry. It will only grow to be more common. So that’s a core part of our strategy: standing out and actually proving we are who we say we are. 

Most seasoned marketers understand the value of brands. They’ve been nurturing them for a while. But some are less familiar with the other imperatives we’ve been discussing. Younger marketers coming through are more aware of these things however they have less experience stewarding brands. How can we bring these two different perspectives together?

Grace: You have to have those different viewpoints and experiences working together. To me it’s less of a short-term/long-term thing – it’s different skill-sets. So one is around direct marketing or direct response acquisition campaigns and then another is around brand growth strategy. You need both. You need a clear view on how you’re going to grow and tactically, this should include both direct response and long-term brand building.

 

Warren Davies is the managing director of All or Nothing.

Amanda Gordon is the head of creative at Future Super.

Grace Palos is the CMO at Future Super.

Image by Bela Geletneky from Pixabay.