Dr. Myriam Sidibe is one of the world’s leading experts of brands that drive health outcomes through mass behavioural change. From within Unilever, she created a movement to change the handwashing behaviours of one billion people, the single biggest hygiene behavior change programme in the world, and was one of the brains behind the multi awards winner UN recognized Global Handwashing Day – now celebrated in over 100 countries. Her work has also been featured in the Harvard Business Review.
Myriam has worked for the public sector and the private sector, arguing for a more transparent relationship between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, advocating the need for businesses to gain growth and profits from engagement in social and health issues in order to build more sustainable, effective interventions.
Myriam is currently on sabbatical from Unilever to Harvard Kennedy School where she is a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. She is an alumni from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she got a doctorate in Public Health.
I caught up with her recently to find out more about her new book Brands On A Mission.
Afdhel Aziz: Myriam, welcome. Please tell us what sent you on a journey to write your book Brands on a Mission?
Myriam Sidibe: For the past 15 years, I have created unique set of competencies across many brands in Unilever to help advance their mission of improving global public health, merging marketing and public health. Though I never imagined that I could make a difference in the world by joining a corporation, I was able to co-found Global Handwashing Day in 2008, an advocacy day now recognized by the UN and celebrated every 15th of October in 100 countries, working for the world largest soap manufacturer. I spearheaded a movement to reach 1 billion people with handwashing with soap which was reached in 2019. This helped bring handwashing to the maximum number of people where it mattered most, in the areas of highest mortality and morbidity. And this would have not been possible without the Lifebuoy soap brand and the fact that we build this mission at the core of its business strategy.
I believe there are many learnings in this journey that I think brands and companies around the world should learn from, hence writing the book and a guide on how to translate purpose into action, to actively bridge the divide between the Brand Say and the Brand Do. Companies everywhere have the capacity to do this: it all comes down to identifying their social purpose and creating an intentional mission around it. In writing Brands on A Mission, I wanted to share the insights I have gained into how to do this, and help companies understand how to successfully leverage their marketing powers to act with purpose and spark positive change.
Aziz: You’ve said “Health and well-being is the foundation for social justice” – could you please elaborate on that?
Sidibe: Without health and well-being for all there is no way to ensure a just and equitable future. Some say “health is wealth,” but in fact, health is the way out of poverty. It is the single most important factor in determining whether children will finish school and earn the skills they need for gainful employment. Well-being is a part of this equation: safety at home, emotional stability, the physical conditions in which to eat hygienically and get a good night’s sleep. Too often a lack of any of these will hold people back from reaching their full potential. The consequences for equality and social justice are far-reaching. If poverty is not reduced, equality and true social justice cannot be achieved.
Ensuring that everyone has access to greater well-being and opportunity is essential to a more inclusive approach to growth and development. Businesses have a key role to play. About 80% of healthcare costs are driven by lifestyle choices that lead to preventable conditions. Hygiene is a Business has the power to help reverse this by setting healthier precedents and steering consumers toward healthier choices and lifestyles. Today, corporations are arguably responsible for the most serious emerging health problems that people face, and they alone have the global power, reach and authority to change this. If we could show an alternative in which doing good is still profitable, we could change that dynamic. This is what Marketing for public health is all about.
Aziz: What is the ‘Brands on a Mission’ movement to generate $1 billion worth of sustainable capital?
Sidibe: Brands on a Mission is a movement I have founded to catalyse and generate an additional U.S.$1 billion investment in sustainable business models that address health and well-being, contributing to achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Our core values are a belief in sustainable, profitable business that protects people and the planet and a focus on health and well-being as the foundation of social justice. We take a collaborative, collective grassroots approach that merges expertise and taps into the best that every sector has to offer.
Three core axes of action we focus on are:
● INSPIRE corporations and individuals that it is possible to merge business and public health goals, and deliver real social impact
● CATALYSE change through key public health issues and business models that will contribute to solving them
● SHARE knowledge, skills and capabilities across companies
Aziz: Do you see the biggest opportunity for brands to get involved in social and environmental issues in developing and emerging markets?
Sidibe: The need is everywhere, but in developing and emerging markets there is still an opportunity to create business models that take lifestyle choices into account because consumerism is not as far advanced as in other places. For this reason, there is also an opportunity to be more thoughtful about how messaging is used and to carefully consider its impact on choices and lives. The situation in developing and emerging markets is still very fragile and ad hoc. So many diseases there are preventable. Marketing can be planned in a way that enables companies to grow while helping people to become healthier and more empowered.
Aziz: Finally, what advice would you have for leaders in business to help them get their brands more involved in doing good?
Sidbe: It all begins with embracing purpose and embedding it into your business strategy. Ask yourself: what issues you are passionate about and how do they align with your products and brand identity? What tools and capabilities do you have for creating marketing campaigns to spark positive change?
Operations and marketing, when done right, can create social impact that can improve millions of lives. But this must be done with authenticity. Companies must align their actions (“brand do”) with what they say (“brand say). Brand say involves communicating to consumers about the social purpose; brand do is about translating this purpose into actually addressing social problems. And my book Brands on a Mission: How to achieve social impact and business growth through purpose highlights a clear model to follow and guide your strategy.
It’s also key to continue both these efforts, and the alignment between your “brand say” and your “brand do” over the long term. Stay committed. Be consistent and genuine. Results of impact will take time, but they will be worthwhile.