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Q&A:
Meet the Team Helping Brands Stay ‘Grounded’ in Their Purpose

NYC-based brand strategy agency Grounded is on a mission to help brands, retailers and nonprofits activate their purpose and close the stubborn consumer intent-to-action gap.

After more than twenty years in marketing — working with some of the biggest names in the business — Phil White and his co-founder and partner, Heidi Schoeneck, decided that “selling stuff” is not enough. Based on their firm belief that making money and doing right by people and the planet are not mutually exclusive, they founded their brand strategy agency, Grounded.

As a certified B Corp, their aim is to help brands, retailers and nonprofits better articulate and activate their purpose, and accelerate impact at retail. Working with like-minded brands and organizations, they have developed innovative business partnerships that can support social enterprise and seek out sustainable solutions to global problems — many of which are becoming increasingly more urgent in the context of the current pandemic — as well as being a founding partner of our own Brands for Good collaboratory.

We caught up with Phil and Heidi, who shared their company’s vision with us — as well as some of the impacts of their work.

What inspired you to start Grounded?

Phil White: We both used to lead strategy and creative, respectively; for a global brand activation agency, here in New York. Our biggest client was Unilever. We won awards for marketing effectiveness ... and witnessed the power of purposeful brand-building, but always felt that we could (and probably should) do more.

Making money and making a difference shouldn’t be mutually exclusive (that’s where the name Grounded came from, by the way — the idea of having one foot planted in purpose and the other in profit!). So, we became a B Corp in our first year, because we wanted to show up knowing that we ourselves understood exactly what it takes to use business as a force for good and maintain the very highest standards in governance and social and environmental impact.

Over the past 24 months or so, with encouragement from friends at the United Nations and great support from the Sustainable Brands™ community, we’ve doubled down on helping brands, retailers and nonprofits better articulate their purpose, activate their brands and accelerate impact at retail. We believe that the way people shop and the brands they buy really do have the power to change the world, and every purchase can be a step towards a more sustainable future.

Why is activating purpose at retail so important right now? And how do you feel that the pandemic is affecting current and future retail habits?

PW: Well, as any shopper marketer will tell you, retail is where the rubber hits the road. That’s where brands get bought and behavior can be influenced, changed and even ‘re-looped’ for the better.

However, there is still a huge intent-to-action gap. Although many people say they will buy and even pay more for environmentally sustainable and socially responsible products — only a quarter actually do so. Coming out of COVID, we’ve seen a huge shift in the way retailers engage with their stakeholders and the broader community; along with many switching or accelerating their efforts towards e-comm and omni-channel shopping experiences.

Recent research also reveals that 63 percent of us expect companies to continue efforts supporting social and environmental issues during this pandemic, and 81 percent say that we expect brands to do the right thing. So, there is a tremendous opportunity for reimagining what’s possible.

You’ve created pop-up social enterprises between brands, retailers and nonprofits. Can you tell us more about that?

Heidi Schoeneck: If you can figure out what your brand uniquely stands for, what the shopper wants and what the world really needs — that space in between provides the ideal opportunity for a brand, retailer and nonprofit to collaborate and co-create a social enterprise-based partnership. That solution can then be scaled to generate sustainable revenue and impact. In other words, the solution often lies at the intersection of brand experience, commercial innovation and social impact.

One of the best examples that has stood the test of time, and is still held up by the United Nations Office of Partnerships (UNOP) as best in class, is the Pampers One Pack One Vaccine campaign. Phil was fortunate enough to be part of the team that helped build it out and activate it at retail around the world. Even thirteen years later, 53 million women worldwide are still at risk from Maternal and Newborn Tetanus. It is a fatal, yet preventable, disease. Yet, tragically, the life of a newborn is claimed every 15 minutes! It’s a stark reminder that meaningful transformation takes time and commitment that many short-term promotional or PR ‘marketing’ campaigns’ are ill-equipped to deliver.

It takes a combination of strategy, marketing, innovation, partnership-building, creative facilitation and exponential thinking to develop solutions like these that can build brand equity, remain behaviorally ‘sticky’ and stay the course over time.

Tell us more about your work with the UN — and the UNicorns Assembly.

HS: We’ve been working with UNOP ever since we started. Ultimately, what we’d love to do is create a global platform (which we’re calling the UNicorns Assembly) that brings together purpose-driven brands, nonprofits and retailers who want to collaborate, monetize and then scale their impact by innovating breakthrough solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges (otherwise known as the Sustainable Development Goals).

So, rather than celebrate startups that are valued at $1bn before they’ve even turned a profit, we want to champion social enterprise startups that have the potential to transform a billion lives. To borrow a line from Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize: ”The world’s biggest problems present us with the world’s biggest business opportunities.” We couldn’t agree more.

In fact we’ve always said (often to raised eyebrows) that “Social Innovation is the new marketing and Brand activism is the new sex! What we mean by that is that when brands, retailers and nonprofits join arms to solve consumer needs and global problems and have the courage to take a stand, they will win hearts, minds and wallets. And if we can help create scalable partnerships and solutions to genuine market opportunities that deliver sustainable revenues for everyone involved, then social enterprise should become the most powerful instrument for change the world has ever seen. Now that’s pretty sexy, isn’t it?

Can you give us a sneak peek into what’s coming from Brands for Good?

PW: Yes, of course! We’re developing a toolkit which will be available to all BfG members — to help brands activate purpose at retail, close this intent-to-action gap, and make sure the behavior change sticks!

Based on the Brands for Good lifestyle transformation roadmap and 9 key sustainable behaviors (along with inspiration from behavioral economics, anthropology and the social sciences), we are developing the ultimate suite of tools, tactics and training to help partners and members better articulate and activate their purpose, and accelerate impact at retail.

In fact, if you are a brand or retailer and would like to join us on this journey — by contributing feedback, points of view, case studies and examples; or even help shape the thinking and approach, then we’d love to hear from you. Please do get in touch!

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