Marketing continues to rise in importance inside the leading organizations in the world. As brand purpose goes from a marketing tool, to a critical driver of long-term growth and development, the creation of authentic experiences that allow brands to connect and engage with a consumer in ways that assure their safety and the hope of a better and brighter tomorrow has never been more important. As a result, CEOs are looking to collaborate with CMOs more so than ever before to ensure that these shifts take place quickly and effectively, in ways that deliver enhanced performance.
For my latest Ask the CMO column, a series dedicated to analyzing the latest trends and disruptions in the marketing landscape, I had the pleasure of speaking with purposeful business pioneer Joey Bergstein, former CMO, COO and now CEO, of Seventh Generation. His rise within one of the world’s most purpose driven brands is a shining example of what we are seeing in the way of leaders and the brands they serve being rewarded for doing well by doing good, and setting a new bar on what is expected of business in today’s uncertain and challenging times. Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: This column has been getting some attention because the marketing role is really in a period of flux. Instead of seeing that as a challenge, many smart marketers are viewing it as a major opportunity as the function rises in importance. I’d love to talk about your journey from CMO to COO and now CEO, and from that unique perspective, hear your thoughts on the changing face of marketing and its growing connection to overall financial performance?
Joey: It’s certainly been an amazing voyage that I’ve been on since joining Seventh Generation. I’ve been here for six years now. As you said, I came in as the CMO, leading the marketing team, but three years ago I took on the role of GM in addition to being the CMO which was pretty unique. It was a great opportunity for me to lead the business, while still overseeing the marketing team quite directly. Wearing two hats was a little bit like marking your own homework sometimes, but fortunately, it seems to have worked out in the end as we mastered that intersection and have built the business rapidly.
I would say over the last six years that our business has been through an incredible transformation. We’ve been remaining true to our founding mission, which is all about inspiring a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations. We have been able to continue to grow by sharpening our message, continually improving our products and building a passionate community base. People really want to get involved in the issues that we’re concerned about and believe in and the values that we stand for.
Billee: You were acquired in October 2016 by Unilever. Can you factor that into your journey as well
Joey: That’s been an exciting voyage too and are discovering some really huge mutual benefits. Obviously, Unilever is enormous and brings a lot of scale and capabilities that were difficult for us to access on our own as a small company, but at the same time, we are playing a big role in Unilever’s sustainability agenda. They are clearly leaders amongst the multinationals when it comes to sustainability but there are many issues where we feel like we were able to help them find an even stronger voice.
Ingredient disclosure is a great example, as it’s an issue that we’ve taken a hard stance on and helped Unilever embrace authentically. Starting in 2008, we listed all of the ingredients on the label on the back of all of our products, which isn’t required in the cleaning business but that was something that we felt the consumers had a right to know because these are products they use around their families every day. We’ve been advocating for that to become a standard across the industry and we’re seeing more and more companies moving to more disclosure of ingredients, particularly over the last year. So, for us with Unilever, it’s really been a nice relationship where we’re both giving and taking as we’ve been working through this integration.
Billee: Wow. A ton of great information. I’m going to take a step back. It sounds like your evolution is emblematic of the shift that we’re seeing in the marketplace related to how you can no longer separate the brand from the product and how success is contingent upon an intersection of the two. Would you say that is the structure or path that you’ve taken?
Joey: Yeah, I think so. I’ve always believed that the consumer is at the heart of any strong brand or business. I think what I bring to Seventh Generation is the ability to bring together holistically what is it that we’re trying to achieve in the world. What is it that people are looking for and how do those things come together into a company to be able to reach all stakeholders in a powerful way? One of the things that I’ve found amazing about Seventh Generation, as a company, is the fact that we are mission-driven and we embrace all stakeholders, not only in relation to the consumer. So, a lot of decisions we make start with what is the change we’re trying to create in the world? And, how do we move society and the business to a better place? Right now, I think what it takes to lead in the world today is just being able to think holistically about what any given company is trying to achieve.
Billee: I think that’s exactly right. You actually live brand purpose and ensure that it’s not just a nice ‘wrapper’, but actually a critical driver of long-term strategy and growth, regardless of what constituency you’re trying to reach. It’s at the core of your DNA. Are there any thoughts that you can share with other marketers about best ways of approaching that?
Joey: I love that you mentioned DNA. We talk about our DNA and purpose all the time and I think it is often confused with cause. I think real purpose is quite different. Purpose should be about why was a company developed and what is its mission ? What is it that it is trying to achieve? The key is identifying the things that you think are really important and driving that purpose through all aspects of the business. If you really believe in your purpose, then it affects everything that you do. It affects the products that you make. It affects every choice you make and how you treat your employees. It even affects your compensation system.
A great example of how purpose impacts our compensation system is that 20 percent of our annual bonus is based on delivering against our mission-oriented goals. Goals such as: improvements in post-consumer recycled plastic in our packaging or reducing the environmental impact of our diaper. We set very specific goals that go to 2030. And we’ve got a path that gets us from where we are today against each of those goals to 2030 and success in achieving these goals becomes a really substantial part of us of our compensation. It’s amazing how that helps everybody focus on the totality of what we’re trying to do. Not just driving sales and profit but making everybody into 360 degree stakeholders.
Billee: That’s fascinating and leads me to my next question. We’re in an experience economy. Regardless of who you’re selling to, be it a business, a consumer, or an employee, it’s really got to be about getting people to believe in the why and who, as much, if not more so, than the what. Can you talk about that and share an insider perspective from Seventh Generation?
Joey: I think that’s really true. People are looking for companies that are trying to make a difference. They want to support them with their dollars. And we live in a world where there’s just so much transparency, that people can learn almost anything they want to know about a company and it impacts the choices they make. Inside our business, we’ve been amazed when you run a market mix analysis and see the benefit of some of our advocacy efforts. So, taking a stance on ingredient disclosure, or taking a stance on toxic chemical reform, which isn’t really about trying to sell Seventh Generation products at all, but really just about trying to move the industry to a better place, benefits the business. We do this simply because we believe business should be a force for good and instill trust.
It seems like many brands have just imploded on trust over the past years. I don’t remember a year where you heard so many stories about brands just losing consumers’ trust and I think a lot of these brands will get it back, but it won’t be easy, as it can’t be bought. It must be earned.
Billee: That’s brilliantly said. One of the areas that I’ve been looking at in my work in this column and with clients, is the reason behind that closing point, so I’m actually really glad that you brought it up. What I have found, is you can say you are as purposeful as you want, but if you’re not informed through the lens of emotional intelligence it really doesn’t matter. I’m seeing a lot of brands that are succeeding placing g an increased emphasis on emotional literacy across the board. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Joey: I think you’re absolutely spot on. I think what’s going on, not to get all nerdy, but I often think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it feels like as a society particularly in a developed country like the U.S., that safety, security, health and well-being are generally pretty well met needs. What people are actually looking for, is a form of self-actualization and in making the choices that they make, they are seeking to make more meaningful statements about who they are and what they stand for. I think the brands that are doing it well have acknowledged that. I think the brands that are doing really well are not just creating marketing campaigns that are purposeful, but are really finding ways to truly bring purpose into the products that they create and I think that’s what’s making an exponential difference.
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Billee: Amazing. It kind of goes to what I think is a shift in business overall. Beyond just the notion of purpose, to this idea that in the uncertain times that we’re living in, there is an increased desire for business to step in and give back to the world as much as the bottom line. Almost a need for CEOs to have a grander sense of moral leadership and responsibility. What do you think about that?
Joey: I think that that’s absolutely true. Much of the change in the country is being driven by business and that it’s also amazing how people are looking to business leaders as a source of inspiration in many cases. I think that there’s absolutely a responsibility for CEOs and for business to take stances on issues that are important and to make their voices heard because ultimately, they can make a real difference. We certainly see that in our business and the issues that we get involved in. We are able to make a difference where we want to. I think when it comes to the greater social issues that are out there, when big business makes bold statements it’s hard to ignore.
Billee: Circling back to something you just said about scale. I’ve noticed two things happening. One is big brands trying to demonstrate authenticity and failing to do so. The other is that smaller brands are trying to become bigger and losing their authenticity in the process. Do you have any thoughts on the best way of scaling a business, but not at the expense of your ‘North Star’ if you will?
Joey: I think North Star is exactly the right word. I feel like we have the same dictionary sometimes (during this conversation). I think it’s exactly that. It’s knowing who you are, what you’re about, and what you stand for and holding yourself accountable to continuing to make the right choices even when that means making decisions that may not necessarily enable you to grow at the pace that you want to grow. Where Seventh Generation takes its name from is the Great Law of the Iroquois. In our every deliberation, we must take into account the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations. So that’s where the name came from. We have that stenciled on the window of our big conference room and it makes a difference for us.
We’ve made decisions not to launch products because we weren’t 100 percent sure of consistency with all of the standards that we set. I’m thinking about one product in particular, and while it would have been a huge success, we’re pretty confident it wasn’t up to our standards so we actually took more than a year to improve it to get it consistent with our standards. Those are hard decisions when you’re growing a business. But if you don’t make decisions like that, then you know, with each decision that comes after that, it becomes easier and easier to lose sight of that North Star. Our new Maya disinfectant product is a great example of us staying true to our North Star throughout the entire process, from invention to market.
Billee: So true, and so impactful. Just one final question. The end of the year will be here before we know it and it’s been quite an interesting one chock full of many changes. I’m sure that business and leadership will continue to face some new challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with along those lines?
Joey: I think that business can be a real powerful force for good, especially during difficult and trying times. I think the stronger the voices are that keep us moving forward towards a true North Star, the better off we’re going to be as a society. I think there’s an opportunity for business to lead in a big way. It’s times like this that people need strong leadership most and today it’s the responsibility and duty of business to step in and accept that challenge.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.