DUBAI — Middle Eastern companies need to transcend their focus on trading and profits if they wish to better demonstrate their commitment to the societies in which they exist, heard delegates at yesterday's PRovokeMENA Summit, which took place virtually.   

And that commitment, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, requires brands to rethink their attitude towards purpose, said moderator Joe Lipscombe, Memac Ogilvy's regional director of content strategy, PR and influence, who noted that 64% of adults believe a brand's primary purpose should be to make the world a better place.

"How do we help brands be more purposeful?" asked Lipscombe. "Are our brands in MENA trying to make the world a better place?"

Not necessarily, was the answer from Cosmic Centaurs CEO Marilyn Zakhour, pointing out that many companies in the region "start from a place of having a trading mentality."

"Because a lot of our companies are based on trade, the first step is to learn how to build big brands and, in that, we can make them purposeful," said Zakhour. "I think the pandemic has created a stage to help those brands contribute meaningfully. And perhaps opened the door for brands to consider how they can do it outside of a crisis."

Amanda Rushforth, board director and ambassador coordinator at Azraq, took things one step further — advising companies to focus on their purpose before they even consider the marketing or sales aspects of their operations. 

"A brand that drives consciousness and purpose first is a brand that's getting me as a consumer," said Rushforth. "If brands do start with a purpose first, rather than marketing or branding or trading, the rest will come. People are ready to commit to something that's bigger than shopping or selling or retail."

That is as much internal as external, added GEMS Education communications VP Jon Bramley, who flagged the importance of employee engagement. "It's not about trying to hitch your wagon to the zeitgeist," he said. "One of the things we're really proud of at GEMS, is there have been hardly any layoffs of teaching staff, despite the various pressures we were under. You would hope that would be remembered by the staff and the parent communities — we have the core values that will stand us in good stead."

For legacy brands, the challenges may well be heightened, as a commitment to purpose is not necessarily intrinsic to their historic operations. "How do we put across a more human narrative to these brands?" asked Rushforth, pointing to an FMCG client that refuses to give up plastic bags. "It's not a focus for them. Sometimes there's a mindset that's too rigid to be able to change."

For those attitudes to shift, added the panellists, education is key — in terms of developing the next generation to take such issues as sustainability more seriously. Also, important, said Bramley — is demonstrating the bottomline impact. 

"The bottomline is when their bottomline is affected," he said. "When young consumers start voting with their feet...they do hold us to account. Thank goodness that kids are so imbued with CSR and sustainability."

That kind of pressure is, increasingly, better applied online than offline. "Hold them accountable on social media, where they care the most," advised Rushforth. "The fact that people are using their voice, albeit online, does help to change these legacies' mindset. They are more concerned about bad Google reviews."

The Middle East is further hampered by a lack of long term planning, noted Lipscombe, which can result in a more reactive mindset. With that in mind, Zakhour highlighted three lessons from Dove's long term commitment to real beauty: "They get CEO buy in, they involve their employees and, less easy to say out loud, they obsessively measure the impact on business."