USCIB sat down (virtually) with Myriam Sidibe, author of “Brands on a Mission: How to achieve social impact and business growth through purpose” (Routledge, 2020). “Brands on a Mission” was released on May 26 and immediately secured a #1 New Release Business Ethics category in Amazon Prime, being reviewed by Forbes, the FT and Global CEO Forum. Sidibe has worked with USCIB through The USCIB Foundation’s partnership with Business Fights Poverty; she has also worked closely with The USCIB Foundation “Business Partners for Sustainable Development” Executive Director Dr. Scott Ratzan.
You are a strong believer that brands must play a major role in promoting public health. What led you to this view?
When I was ten years old, I fell into a septic tank. I couldn’t get out, I flailed around in the dark, screaming for help, sure I would die. I nearly drowned in shit. Today I remember the taste, the smell, the shame like it was yesterday. It remains one of the worst days of my life.
But it was also one of the best days of my life. It kicked off my career in health and hygiene – a career that has taken me all over the world – from Boston to Bujumbura, London to Mumbai, from the public to the private sector. Because I fell in that toilet’s septic tank, I was inspired and motivated to spend decades of my life getting rid of shit, literally! Whether by building toilets or washing hands.
Of course I didn’t want anyone else to have that hellish sensation, that near-death experience, that burning shame. I could relate to the 2 billion people that still lack a toilet.
After studying at some of the world’s greatest universities, I joined an NGO in Burundi, building toilets and handwashing facilities in war zones. Many of them remained unused as people preferred open air to our toilets, often using them for storing dried grain. Something didn’t feel right. We kept talking about ‘beneficiaries’, a term that bothered me deeply, as did the constant focus on the donors who paid for everything. Our success depended on writing grant applications for funding, and those grants measured success by how many toilets we built.
But I kept seeing a lot of empty toilets, as the ‘beneficiaries’ weren’t using them. I wondered, was my career going to be constantly chasing donor money to build unused toilets? Was I going to make decisions for powerless people? As a young African woman, I wanted to be part of the development of my continent. But my work felt both undignified for the beneficiaries and unsatisfying for me. So if the humanitarian route wasn’t for me, what else was there?
I went back to school, equipped myself with a doctorate in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, then spent a few years researching and monitoring children washing hands or rather not washing hands. And then I presented my findings to the company that had funded my research: Unilever. They offered me a job.
And very soon, I fell in love – not with a fancy marketer but with a word. Crazy as this sounds the word was ‘consumer’. I realised that Unilever didn’t treat its audiences as beneficiaries, but as
consumers. Instead of offering hand-me-downs and pity, Unilever treated consumers, however vulnerable they might be, with respect and dignity. That’s because consumers have a choice: they choose with their wallet what to do with their money.
It was an exciting moment that changed everything for me. I went from giving resources to beneficiaries in Burundi who had no choice, to making solutions attractive to consumers who did have a choice, however humble their circumstances. And by doing so I have achieved so much more than I could have done in the public sector alone.
Health and wellbeing is the foundation of social justice – the most rewarding business investment in every sense of the term. And I know now that through marketing, businesses – brands – are uniquely well-positioned to make consumption conscientious and improve both society as a whole and individual customers.
Do you think the message is getting through? What are some of the best examples of companies taking a leadership position, in your view?
The message is definitely getting through. As we are seeing right now with brands like Nike, Walmart, Ben & Jerry’s, Twitter and Google taking a stand on pressing issues such as racism and the accuracy of statements by political leaders, brands are becoming increasingly aware of their impact on society and their potential to make that impact a positive one. That awareness is all the more clear in the steps many brands, such as Aunt Jemimah and Fair & Lovely are taking to drop racist product names and devote significant amounts of money to raise awareness and facilitate conversations about racism. Brands are recognizing that they no longer have a choice, and that they will be held accountable for their actions.
Unilever as a corporation has set an excellent example by integrating the 1 billion goal into Lifebuoy’s business strategy and actually combining global partnerships for public health. Other great examples are Danone, which is beginning to identity as a Brand on a Mission, and LIXIL, which developed SATO, short for “Safe Toilet”, which helped vastly improve sanitation conditions in 25 countries across Africa and Asia, among the poorest of the world’s poor. LIXIL’s mission is to bring better living solutions to the world for today and the future.
While brands in general are seeing the value of purpose, they have changed and gotten better at this, we still need to hold them accountable.
It seems that Unilever was ahead of its time in recognizing the power of purpose in business success. Can you talk about your time there?
I spent 15 years at Unilever, where I was provided with an excellent platform for developing initiatives that I could never have undertaken in the public sector. Thanks to this platform I was able to create a movement to change the handwashing behaviours of one billion people, the single biggest hygiene programme in the world. I also helped Pepsodent toothpaste improve oral hygiene in Africa and Knorr bouillon cubes fight anemia through encouraging mothers and girls to eat more green leafy vegetables alongside its iron-fortified cubes.
As I mentioned earlier, I was inspired and energized by the fact that Unilever didn’t treat its audiences as beneficiaries, but as consumers, and that however vulnerable these consumers might be, Unilever treats them with respect and dignity. Thanks to all of this I have achieved so much more than I could have done in the public sector alone. I talk more about this in my book, Brands on a Mission. Of course I have my shares of stories of navigating the system as an intrapreneur and as a black woman in dominantly white corporate environment but my purpose which is to inspire and pioneer new ways to address social justice through sustainable business kept me going. And I have not regretted it.
What more can be done to ensure that government and business recognize the need to work together to address global challenges, including of course, COVID-19?
Above all, we need successful examples to follow. Examples of coalitions between the public and private sectors which launched Global Handwashing Day, or The National Business Compact for Coronavirus in Kenya, which brings together competing brands in the hygiene business, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, a number of industry associations and the UN family in Kenya whose mandate is to accelerate local action and support government efforts in countering the pandemic. They also collaborate with Business Fights Poverty and other Business networks alike on global best-practice sharing.
Such examples can serve as a blueprint for others striving to do the same.
You’ve called for a “global marketing campaign” to beat COVID-19. What do you mean by that and who would be involved?
Yes, we need an industry-wide approach to help support handwashing and other prevention measures. Kenya’s National Business Compact for Coronavirus is an example. We must get businesses to work together to distribute hygiene products. In Kenya, we’ve set up over 4500 public handwashing facilities and ran a national campaign. We’re also supporting governments to help more people to grow their own foods. When people are hungry, they won’t respect any of these measures such social distancing. When your choice is die of Covid19 or die of Hunger I suppose the choice is easily made.
How do we address issues of public mistrust in our large institutions, particularly government, business and the media?
The most important factors are time and positive examples. It takes time to build trust, and to come back from the mistrust that disparity and inequality create. Over time, with enough positive examples as reinforcement, we can build (or rebuild) the public’s trust in institutions.
What do you see as the role of organizations like Business Fights Poverty and the USCIB in the post COVID-19 world?
These organizations must leverage their strong reputations and reach to help companies and businesses create brands that embrace social missions, are more inclusive in both their hiring and their marketing, help educate the public about the issues their business affects and are intentional about their social footprint. By reinforcing the need to continue in a direction that upholds a world of positive change and inclusiveness, such organizations can make a real difference. And of course share my book lol.
Your new book is titled “Brands on a Mission: How to achieve social impact and business growth through purpose.” In it you say brands are crucial to addressing social justice, infectious disease, violence, fitness and a range of challenges. Why are they so powerful?
With their natural incentives to get people to buy their products, brands have an inherent ability to reshape people’s views and habits. They have decades of experience convincing consumers to do just that, and the tools, resources and creative heft to change social norms and influence conversations. They can spread messages far and wide, among both consumers and their employees.
In today’s world, brands have become tantamount to individuals who hold great power. With such power and influence, it is simply no longer acceptable for brands to remain silent, especially in these times when consumers are craving positive examples to fill the void left by governments.
After spreading the word about the importance of handwashing for years, COVID-19 has put your work in the spotlight. How are you responding to all the attention and momentum?
I’m going out there and making things happen. I helped create Kenya’s National Business Compact for Coronavirus, and have been doing a lot of speaking to keep spreading the message and building momentum. This has been catalyzing further response, which in turn is inspiring companies to innovate to respond to social and public health challenges we’re facing, including by supporting handwashing.
How do you stay optimistic in this difficult time?
I look at my three children and think about how the future will look when this difficult period has passed. They give me hope that these times will perhaps open up an opportunity for us to build a better world going forward, since the current crises we’re experiencing are exposing so many inequalities and injustices we need, collectively, to address and rethink.