9 lessons in building a purposeful brand

Future Super chief marketing officer shares the brand pillars the ethical superannuation firm has been using to build out its brand strategy

Grace Palos
Grace Palos


An ambition to attach meaning to money through brave and purposeful brand work is the key to making an impact for Future Super’s chief marketing officer, Grace Palos.

 “People always ask me the question of how we overcome the apathy people have inherently around superannuation and financial services. But I don’t believe that is true, I think we just haven’t communicated it in a way that’s accessible to humans,” Palos told CMO. “We talk about money in such an abstract way we can’t attach meaning to it. That’s what we’re trying to do now at Future Super – attach that meaning to money.”  

Future Super is a purpose-driven super fund aiming to help Australians invest in a more prosperous, sustainable future. As Palos puts it, there’s $3 trillion sitting in super funds across the country, representing the third-largest pool of capital Australians have. If just 7.7 per cent of this money was put into renewable energy, for instance, Australia’s transition to clean energy would be completely funded. 

Palos joined the business in January 2018 and for the past two years has been working to build a clear brand purpose and strategy from the inside-out. Palos comes from a consumer behaviour brand background and was previously head of global growth for Stake, a startup. She also worked in strategy for agency, For the People, and in marketing for Australian Ethical Investment and the Bicycle Network.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been fascinated with how we market money. In an ethical framework and with values-based principles, you can talk about what you invest in and market in a different way to other financial services players,” Palos says. “Our competitive challenge is going to be the stories we tell about super. Those stories are what will enable people to understand money in a new way.”  

Here, Palos shares the learnings her and her team have picked up as they work to build out the Future Super brand.

1. Start by doing

In approaching the brand work, Palos says the ambition was not to go to market with a ‘big bang’ but instead build internals foundations that could inform every aspect of activity, work and decision-making moving forward. That process literally started by doing – or in Future Super’s case, started by telling the stories of the impactful role it was already playing in improving Australia’s future.

“I started by saying, if we want to tell different stories about money, let’s just start telling them,” Palos says. “We did that by releasing Facebook creative every two weeks, and building a rhythm that underlined the meatier challenge. Once we started seeing stories about empowerment and collective action around money were resonating with people, we looked at how we could build those into a bigger system.”   

2. Find time to explore your brand spirit

Once initial testing results had been logged, Palos and the team undertook a one-week ‘brand sprint’. The brief, she says, was to think of ‘building a baby brand in one week’ to see where the team could get to.

“The output didn’t see light of day, but it gave us enough space to get into the role of Future Super in the world, and how we encapsulate that into something that’s meaningful,” Palos says.

“For example, we talked about being Batman, a character with a strong mental compass. That gets you into exploration of what your brand can be, which I think a lot of client-side branding projects miss. You need the space to explore in order to build a working knowledge of what the brand stands for, and why it exists.”

3. Recognise brand as a decision-making tool

For Palos, brand exploration was about helping the Future Super team build brand as a decision-making toolkit.

“It was less about coming up with assets, or a logo, and more about how the team internally uses this as barometer for whether we should or shouldn’t do things, and if it makes for Future Super, or not,” she explains.  

“A lot of board and executive conversations were about how we were going to define brand as a precursor to us having a shared understanding of what this project could deliver. The ability to use brand as a decision-making tool is what unlocks everything else. If my team couldn’t use it to make decisions, it wasn’t worth it.”  

Palos defines brand “as what we say, what we do, and how we act”. “That emanates from inside the business and has to be done from the inside-out, rather than something you adopt,” she continues.

“There are so many cool things we invest in as Future Super, such as the way we seed renewable energy assets, and it was fun to wade through those as we looked at how we tell the stories of our brand.”

Related: Brand purpose must be all year round

4. Follow the narrative

Many unexpected stories and surprises came along the way, many foundational and about how money works, Palos continues. “That’s what got us most excited,” she says.

For example, the brand process was used to apply foundational money thinking into building an emotive brand. Visually, the shapes now being used in the Future Super brand are the size of different notes, while the colours are the colours of the Australian dollars.

“From a strategic side, we were exploring where money has been used for collective action, and diving into research about the South African divestment movement of Apartheid and companies pulling money out of South Africa. Then we got interested in the flow of money and how we use that in visualisations,” Palos says.

“It was about what is most true about money already that we could make emotive and interesting to the average consumer.”

5. Attune yourself to the market

With purpose-led values core to Future Super and its constitution, the brand always needed to speak to these elements. But Palos says being aware of changing consumer and market sentiments and values has also been vital to building out the brand in a way that has meaning and impact.

“At a market level, consumers are more interested and aware of brands and are asking what they’re doing to lead with the purpose,” she says. “The question for us is how we constantly show we’re not just doing this for a marketing message, but doing this to change the world. That’s an interesting challenge as more and more brands come out saying they’re doing things purposefully. It’s our actions, rather than our words, that counts.

“The most important challenge is to continue to push our transparency so consumers can decide for themselves. Our values are there, we are accountable to it, and we’re doing things in a way that makes sense. It’s one thing to do it, it’s another to make it coherent in market.”

6. Foster internal bravery

The biggest internal measure of success for Palos is creating a space where her team can own the spirit of the Future Super brand. One of the ways it’s been encouraging its test-and-learn approach is by sharing the story through a Medium article series called ‘Safe team, brave work’.

“A huge emphasis has been on creating a psychologically safe environment. It’s about the ability to try things, be whacky and colour outside the lines and not be kicked off the team. That’s the bedrock of building something that’s true to Future Super but also can be market shifting,” Palos says.  

“That’s what enables brave work – I’ll throw you a crazy idea if I believe you trust me 100 per cent.”

7. Approach everything as test-and-learn

In practice, what that looks like is reinforcing everything as a test. For Palos, that involves building an understanding in the team of where the business wants to head, “then letting them own how we test to get there”.

“We are trying to do something different and talk about money in a way people haven’t talked about it before. To do that, we need to give ourselves space to try new things,” she says. “There are so many means for us to try things, get input from consumers, then use that as sense check to build our spirit and direction.

“Pretty much everything we release is on hypothetical basis – if I do this, then what? For example, if we show a strong negative message on the website in the creative, will more people convert? We put it out there to see if it’s true or false. Most tests start small, then as we see it working, we’ll build out to build out understanding it. The main goal is how we’re going to learn something from it.”

8. Measure success as impact

The dialogue with executives has changed as a result. “Future Super’s purpose is quite ambitious, and to do that, we can’t just have a traditional marketing strategy,” Palos comments.

“In addition, the world is changing – super, purpose-driven brands are changing, so our ability to be nimble and cut through the noise is more important than anything else. How do we cut through? We constantly test what will really resonate with people and move the needle.

“Rather than thinking about outputs – like our channel mix – we have far more discussions at board level about strategy versus outputs or single campaigns. Our board sees creative campaigns as us testing to see what will work.”

An example Palos points to is Future Super’s ‘Not business as usual’ initiative last year to support the first global climate strike. In meeting with students, it was clear they were struggling to get their message heard by adults. Future Super worked to build buy-in with business leaders and employers and 48 hours in, had 500 business leaders signed up. By the time New Zealanders were striking for global climate change, more than 6000 businesses were signed up including Wikipedia and Microsoft. In all, 150,000 adults participated in the strikes in Australia that day.

“That was a perfect example of the intersection between the kind of marketing we want to do, but also businesses playing an impactful role,” Palos says.  

9. Commit to being nimble

As the COVID-19 crisis hit and the Government introduced early superannuation access to Australians, Palos says it’s used its ability to be nimble, test things and brand spirit to respond. Within a week of the lockdown reaching Australia, Future Super’s ad creative had changed, and within four weeks it had a plan on the role it was going to play during COVID and around the early release super decision.

One response was the ‘Fund our future’ campaign asking people to sign a petition against early release superannuation, noting that even as they were withdrawing from super, the government continued to give $12 billion to fossil fuel companies. “The point there was super shouldn’t be used as an emergency relief fund,” Palos says.

More broadly, the main thing 2020 has taught Palos is marketing teams can no longer plan for 6-12 months.

“You need to build an organism that can respond to things as they change,” she says.  “The biggest thing we have tried to do in 2020 is when things changed, to take other priorities off the table. Because otherwise as marketing teams we’re just piling it higher and deeper and then teams can’t think through how to cut through the noise.

“What we need right now is not more, but less that’s more poignant, coherent and powerful.”

As for where Future Super’s brand efforts to date go from now, Palos says the emphasis is on building up fidelity.

“The last year was a work-out phase, the first half of this year was the try-out phase, and now we’re in build-out phase,” she says. “The testing happened fastest on the digital marketing side, so now we need to build this brand out across the whole product experience so it all lines up. You have an ad talking about creative action, then once you experience the product you see the impact your money is having every day.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.

 

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