EPISODE 84 | Guest: Maliha Aqeel, independent communications consultant, founder & CEO of the Ideas Collective
Word of mouth has gone digital and in the age of the empowered consumer, it’s vital for brands to offer purpose-driven content. This means everything must tie back into the stated purpose and values of the organization apart from profit statements. But make sure you mean what you say and be prepared to show proof that you do what you promise to do.
Communications consultant Maliha Aqeel walks us through the Four As of purpose-driven content: how Authenticity, Accountability and Action create consumer Advocates that promote your brand and help you differentiate yourself from competitors.
- Explore how to align the messaging of your organization with your purpose
- Get practical examples of how to apply the Four As in communications
- Hear how consumer experience and consumer empowerment are driving change
- Understand how to use Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle for decision making
- Learn the importance of social listening, research and validating using data
Discover more content tips in our Masterclass Guide 3: Digital Signage Content
Derek DeWitt: It seems rather obvious that communications, and the content that you push out to people, needs to have a purpose behind it. And yet, sometimes, maybe that purpose isn’t really 100% clear – either from on high, where the directive to make certain communications efforts comes from, or from the people who are actually tasked with implementing it. And so today, we’re gonna talk about purpose-driven content; being able to really target your audience and target your message in a way that makes it most effective.
To that end, I am speaking today with Maliha Aqeel. She is an independent communications consultant, and the founder and CEO of the Ideas Collective in Toronto, Canada. Hello, Ms. Aqeel, how are you today?
Maliha Aqeel: I’m good, thank you, Derek. Thank you so much for having me.
Derek DeWitt: Thank you for being on and thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. Don’t forget that you can subscribe to this podcast.
So, Ms. Aqeel, my wife participated in a presentation you gave, I think it was for IABC, about the DNA of purpose-driven content. She was really quite taken with a lot of the things that you had to say. It seems to me like I should be able to figure out what that means, purpose-driven content, but what do you mean when you use this term?
Maliha Aqeel: So, purpose is about what a brand does and the reason why it exists beyond making money, making profits. It’s about what a brand wants to achieve. It could be adding value by solving a problem that the customers are facing, making a contribution to society. So, when you have a purpose-driven brand, everything that a brand does and says externally, as well as internally, needs to be aligned. And so the idea of purpose-driven content is that creating thought leadership, creating perspectives, insights, content from an overarching perspective, needs to tie back to what the purpose of the brand is. If that alignment does not exist, then the content itself does not come across as being authentic to what the brand is and what the consumers expect it to be in the marketplace.
Derek DeWitt: Sure. And that’s an interesting thing that this notion of authenticity has, it’s really kind of become quite, I almost wanna call it a buzzword, but it’s actually become something much more than a buzzword for today’s audiences. Even people of my generation, Gen X, you know, we kind of grew up with, oh yeah, okay, that’s just advertising speak and you know, whatever, they’re liars and we don’t really care. And it’s like us and our children and their children have had a kind of a sea change in the way that they approach these things. We’re still for, you know, consumerism. We still want to have products and services. And yet we do want this sense that you’re not just lying to me, or that you’re just giving me a bunch of, you know, workshopped phraseology in order to try and convince me to buy your products or services. We want that sense that there’s something of real value there.
Maliha Aqeel: Exactly. Consumers, they aren’t just making decisions based on a particular product and the selection of products that you may offer, or even the price. There is still, the price stickiness is still there, but for a lot of consumers, increasingly, price is not the primary motivator to engage with the brand. They are judging what a brand says, what it, it does, what it stands for.
There was, a survey by Accenture, pre-pandemic now, I think it was in 2018 or 19, and it was a global survey of about 30,000 consumers. And in that survey, they found that 62% of consumers said that they would purchase from a purpose-driven brand, but by doing so, they also expected brands to take a stand on the current issues of the day. And the Edelman Trust Barometer as well in recent years has found that consumers are now expecting brands and companies to solve societal problems. They no longer expect governments to do so. And part of it could be that governments have failed to address those issues. And so, because all of this sort of that sea change that you mentioned is happening, what it really means is that there’s more scrutiny on companies, and the scrutiny is really tied to where they stand in society.
And I will say it varies by country, because certain things that we might see in North America are going to be very different in terms of how consumers approach it in other parts of the world. And I think that’s really important for brands to remember because it means that they can’t often have the exact same approach in, in every country in which they operate, because authenticity is also a cultural content. And the way that is perceived in different cultures is very different. And depending as well on the social mores.
If you have cultures that are a little bit more, um, authoritarian, or I think sometimes we call them closed cultures, the way that you would approach something as a brand is going to be very different than when you are participating in an open culture, where there are different expectations of how you participate in society and the contributions that you’re making. And often even the impact that you have. Everything from labor laws to supply chains, they all go into what consumers are looking at. And if not the consumers, if you’re a publicly listed company, the analysts are looking at all those things, and they are giving your company’s particular ratings based on the interconnectedness of each of those factors that go into some of the things like environmental, social and governance factors.
Derek DeWitt: How far outside of a particular company’s or organization’s purview should they go? And by that, I mean, if I sell, if I’m trying to sell the new cola, environmental impact, sure, that has something to do with my business. Transgender rights, not so much? I mean, maybe in my hiring practices, and maybe in the demographics and diversity that we show in our advertising. But like, how far are we expected to go as organizations?
Maliha Aqeel: Part of that, I think, goes back to what your purpose is and what the values are. Every brand has particular values. Those are the things that they don’t often talk about, but you see it reflected in everything that they’re doing. It’s also reflected in what their employees are talking about on their social media channels. In terms of how far you can go really does depend on what your values are. So if your value as a brand, for example, is about the environment, and it turns out that your supply chain practices don’t necessarily follow those environmental best practices, or you are sourcing materials from certain suppliers that are not environmentally friendly, then there is already misalignment.
So, you may talk about how important the environment is, but if every single dot along how your company operates does not connect back to that mission, then there is a misalignment, and that’s where that authenticity and credibility issue comes in. Because it only really takes one news story for people to start questioning whether you truly are doing what you said you were going to do as a brand. If you are a purpose-driven brand, the goal would always be to connect those dots really well across every single part of the organization. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, and it is very much a work in progress. There’s going to be requirements for a lot more push from, not just consumers, but investors and regulators and all the other stakeholders, to get brands to truly become completely purpose driven.
In terms of how it connects back to the content piece, you know, around the advertising part of it, when you’re advertising, it really does depend on who you’re targeting. If you are a consumer brand, your audience may be just everybody, or it may be a particular lifestyle that certain consumers aspire to. In which case your advertising is all your messaging, the way it looks, the way it feels, the channels that you use. All of that are targeting a particular subset of consumers that aspire to the lifestyle that you are selling. And in that respect, there might be particular demographics, but also psychographics that play into how you select what those consumers are and far you can go in terms of your messaging.
For a majority of B2B brands, that isn’t always a consideration. It might be a consideration in terms of the kind of talent that they’re trying to attract. But for B2B brands, it really does depend on the other businesses. So, if I think about a B2B brand that, let’s say, they create airport buses; their target audience is not gonna be the average consumer. Their target audience is gonna be the purchasing department of an airport. And for a lot of those, these things don’t really matter in terms of what your value is, what your purpose is, what kind of content you’re creating. For them, it’s more about, okay, tell me, does the bus work and how much is it gonna cost me? And so, it does vary by industry.
As a brand and as a marketer, working for a brand or an agency that represents the brand and is doing all of their communication and their marketing, you have to be mindful of the conversations that are happening within the industry in which they operate. And you have to have a real clear understanding of the audience that you’re targeting and what matters to them. Because if you do that, some of the things that I talked about in my presentation, what I call the Four A’s, they come together really naturally. And if you do not have a strong understanding of that cultural context, you don’t have a strong understanding of the conversations happening, you’re not doing social listening, you might get one of the A’s, but you might not get all of them. And if you can’t get all of them correct, there’s always gonna be a gap that somebody else could come in and address. And that could be a competitor.
Derek DeWitt: So, let’s talk about those Four A’s. As my understanding is they are accountability, authenticity, action, and advocacy, though I’m not sure what order they should be in. We’ve kind of already talked about authenticity a bit. What about the other three?
Maliha Aqeel: So, accountability is very much about corporate citizenship. It is about the metrics, the values, and in many ways, it’s that hard data and the information that you would report to your investors, to stakeholders. Accountability is about demonstrating that you are living the values that you espouse. It’s about using data to confirm, to validate, to report to your investors, to your employees, to your customers, that you have taken into account all of the ways that your impact in the business world, in society, is something that you take very seriously.
It’s about holding yourself accountable, but I think it also allows your stakeholders to hold you accountable. And that’s why you’re starting to see more and more companies issuing sustainability reports now, because ESG has become an important way for us to look at companies and to ask ourselves, are these companies ones that are truly interested in environmental issues, in social impact, in the way that they’re governed, and the processes that they follow?
Looking at these sustainability reports, ESG reports, whatever the brand calls them, allows us to make sure that the company is on the right track. If you are an investor, it allows you to make sure you see whether your investment is one that will give you the right return. If you are an employee, it’s a source of pride because you can then talk to your networks and show them that you are working for a company that’s truly invested in the world that we live in.
In terms of action, that is where communication and marketing professionals play the biggest role. This is where you see a lot of the tactical things, the advertising campaigns, the blogs, the storytelling on social media, on public relation channels, even things like using digital signage software to convey your message to employees.
I remember when I worked in one of those office towers before the pandemic, we had digital screens at the elevators. And while you’re waiting for the elevators, you would see the messages coming on about different campaigns that the company was running. Maybe there were things that were happening like an all-hands, and it would be a way to promote it. And those are the kinds of channels that communication professionals use to talk to their audience.
Some channels are more about a one-way communication, broadcasting a message where your audience is already there, or you have a captive audience, and making sure that they see it by making it super creative, looking at how it’s designed. And then you have the two-way communicate when you have things like town halls for employees, or when you have analyst calls with investors, or when you have social media channels, where you are directly engaging with your consumers and they can engage with you. But that’s all of the ways in which a brand can take action and demonstrate that they are true to their purpose.
Derek DeWitt: Yeah, it seems like the action component here is, I notice you have in brackets or parentheses after it in your chart, “connection”. That’s really very much what it is. It’s about making this connection, be it one-way or two-way (even though I think more and more, it’s becoming more two-way) between the audience and the organization itself.
Maliha Aqeel: Yeah, that is correct. I can’t remember which brand it was, but I remember there used to be a brand that had an advertising campaign about, you know, reaching out and touching someone. And it was very much about, how do you make those connections? And I think more and more digital has made that easier, but it’s also, in many ways, disconnected us from each other, because we consume the messages that interest us, and we may not always see everything.
Derek DeWitt: Yes, that’s very true. I was talking about this with a friend about, with the advent of streaming TV and movies and things. You know, it used to be, you know, everybody saw Entertainment Tonight at 7:30 on Tuesdays, or everybody saw, I Love Lucy. Some ridiculous amount of Americans used to actually watch that show when it was first broadcast, an episode, something like a third or a quarter of the entire country saw that show. So there was this sense of connection the next day of the person you’re talking to probably saw that episode of I Love Lucy last night. And yet now it’s like, oh, I’m watching this, oh, me too, I’m in episode two, I’m in episode eight, oh, it gets better, trust me. So, we are all kind of out of sync with one another.
Maliha Aqeel: We are out of sync, and we have so many options that whenever someone like, particularly someone like me, like someone tells me, oh, you need to watch that show, I just add it to my Netflix queue. And I have to be in the mood to watch it. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a particular type of show. So, it stays on the list for who knows how long. And there are very few moments now when you have that ability to have conversations live, when something is happening. I don’t use Twitter as much as I used to, but I remember like when you’re trying to like watch a live award ceremony, for example, there would be all the secondary conversation happening on Twitter that you could be a part of. And it made the event more enjoyable because everyone was watching it at the same time and commenting on it at the same time. And one of the things that has resulted is you have a wider universe to send you a message to.
But at the same time, they’re not always authentic connections because you don’t know the other person. You have a shared interest for that one hour, 30 minutes, whatever the case may be, but you have nothing in common with them beyond that. That’s true on the personal side, but when it comes to brands, that’s not always the case. Because they are targeting particular customers that are a subset and things in common. So, I think in many ways, companies do have it easier because they have a captive audience for their product, for their service. They have a captive audience that believes in the values that they espouse, that want that aspirational image that they present. And there’s enough of them to keep certain brands going and becoming very successful. And for more, some niche ones that might not necessarily be the case, but maybe they’re only targeting a niche audience, and that’s the small universe they want to inhabit.
But there’s almost this idea of the multiverse now, where you have multiple realities taking place at the same time. And we can jump around between those realities. And we can, we decide as consumers what we want that brand experience to be. And on the flip side of it, for communication professionals and marketers, that’s a huge challenge. Because if anyone can switch off your brand, they can mute you, how do you cut through that to make sure that the messages that you’re trying to convey do come across and you are able to make those connections? And so, there’s a need to be even more creative.
That’s why you see a lot more viral trends coming out, and brands could continuously try to take advantage of those trends, to become relevant. But when you try to take advantage of a trend that has absolutely nothing to do with your business and is not necessarily what you do in a day in, day out, or what you talk about as a brand, consumers will switch you off themselves. Because they’re like, wait a minute, you are a bank that’s talking about something to do with kids, but you don’t actually offer bank accounts for students. So, you know, it’s like bad example, but, you know, it’s kind of like, okay, do you even, is that even something that you do as a brand? And if that’s not something that you do as a brand, or it’s not core to who you’re targeting, it’s better not to participate in those viral trends because that’s, you know, it goes back to that authenticity. How can you be credible as a brand if you’re taking part in a conversation that you would have never participated in on an average day?
Derek DeWitt: Right, exactly. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is, you know, this is the newest buzzword of the month, you wouldn’t be bringing it up at all. I think of the trend, um, not terribly long ago where suddenly, you know, there would be these flash mobs; ’cause flash mobs actually started off as a rather culturally and societally subversive game, a way to bring fun back into, you know, a city, where it’s very easy to feel like you’re just a cog.
And then marketers got ahold of it, and they started to, you know, we’re gonna create, you hear this, I used to hear this all the time, we need to create a viral video. And you’re like, do you? Like you said, you’re a bank. Does a bank really need a viral video? And then, you know, somebody says, well, let’s do a flash mob in front of the shopping center, but we’re gonna do Gangnam Style. You’re like, why are you Korean? Like, it just, you just feel like it, it comes off like you’re just riding on the coattails of something. And it comes off; it actually makes you look worse, I think.
Maliha Aqeel: It does. And, you know, that kind of ties into the last A, which is advocacy. If you’ve done the other three well, you are accountable to yourself, to your customers; you are authentic; you are taking the right actions to create meaningful connections, your customers end up becoming your advocates because their values align with your brand’s values, and they help bring your purpose to life. Because they believe in it enough that when they talk about your brand, when they engage with your brand. And you know, the customers that I talk about here could be internal and external customers, like your internal are your employees and your external are the ones that are your target audience, whether they’re a consumer brand or B2B brand. Whatever your customers are, they are the ones that help bring your purpose to life.
A brand can say whatever it wants about its purpose and say, you know, we stand for a particular social topic: we stand for justice, we stand for great pricing, whatever their purpose may be. But if their audience and their customers don’t believe that to be true, then they will never be advocates who say, yes, what this brand says is true, and therefore bring others along. And if you cannot have advocacy in terms of creating advocates of your customers, then all the other stuff just falls flat, because it’s you with, with your bullhorn talking, talking, talking, saying, you know, we stand for all of these amazing things. Well, where’s the proof?
Derek DeWitt: You know, it’s interesting, you also talk about this, this concept of the Golden Circle, which is Why, How, and What, and how things really should be in that order. And that seems is kind of like what you’re really saying is. I think sometimes, especially at the end of the 20th century and maybe even the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, I think a lot of communications professionals and marketers started with the What. Like I said, hey, we’re gonna do a viral flash mob, and we’re gonna video it and we’re gonna stick it on YouTube and that’s gonna be awesome. Don’t start with the What, because the answer to Why is because everybody else is doing it, and that’s hollow and there’s no there there.
Maliha Aqeel: Yeah, it’s, you know, the Golden Circle is from Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why. And I remember when I read the book, it almost was like that light bulb moment when you’re like, this makes so much sense. Like, of course that’s how it should be. But you know, when you are in your day job, and you’re just trying to do whatever the client has asked you or your executive leadership team has asked you to do, it’s just, you’re reacting to their request, and you forget. And I have found that, in my last few corporate roles, I would put a pause on things and I would say, so wait a minute, what problem are we trying to solve? And that really is that Why. Is, you know, are we trying to solve a problem where we have a competitor coming into our space and we need to differentiate ourselves? Is the problem we’re trying to solve that we are not selling enough? Because if we don’t know that problem, we can’t really create appropriate solutions to address that problem.
Derek DeWitt: And I’d also say, is that actually a real problem? Or is it just someone chewing their fingernails thinking maybe this is a problem, let’s do something about it. And then, you know, all this time and money and work hours have gone into it. And then, you know, you turn out later, actually, we didn’t need to do any of that.
Maliha Aqeel: Exactly. And you know, there’s so many of those situations that happen, and some of it is perception. It’s one loud person on the leadership team that thinks that this the problem we’re trying to solve.
Derek DeWitt: I believe you’re also describing social media!
Maliha Aqeel: It is. And it is always interesting to me how not as many brands do social listening. They will look at the comments that are coming on their own pages. And they look at impressions and engagements and all those things. But social listening is really interesting because social listening is about the conversations that are happening on social when your brand is not in the room. And it allows you to see what people are actually talking about and how much they’re talking about certain issues versus others. And it also allows you to see as a brand where the conversation could go with your brand, and you can take some of those insights to develop meaningful content for your customers. But, you know, when it comes to that problem-solving piece, it very much is about doing your research.
And it’s about validating using data. I’ve known for myself, whenever someone says to me, well, we have this problem, and I automatically ask for the data to say, okay, show me the data that shows that this is a problem. So, as an example, when someone says, well, our website sucks and nobody uses it. And then I go to our website analytics and I was like, well actually, our website is up X percent, and we have this many new users. We have people coming in from all of these places, all of these channels are contributing to our traffic. So you may not like the website, and it may not be what you would prefer, but at the end of the day, the target audience for all websites are the consumers, not the staff.
Derek DeWitt: Yeah, exactly. And if you’re a company, your people may be interacting with that website on a daily basis. So yeah, after a year they go, man, I’m so sick of this website. Well, to Joe Schmoe customer, they’ve never seen it before. So it’s all fresh and new to them.
Maliha Aqeel: Exactly. And I have found when you’re doing websites, and I’m sure you’ve seen it with other channels, it’s always like people wanna use it to post the content that they don’t want to talk about themselves, even though they should be talking about it as part of their day-to-day job. So, you know, I have like, I’ve worked with sales people who’ll be like, oh, we should put all of this information, like all of these PDFs and these sales sheets, like they all need to go on the website, and whenever someone asks me, I’m just gonna give them the link to it. And part of me is like, but aren’t people going to be more convinced when you have a conversation with them? Like if someone was to tell me, why don’t you just go to our website and read everything, that just shows me you’re not interested in my business. You’re not interested in making a deeper connection with me. Just want me to engage in something on a one-way basis.
Derek DeWitt: Ah, that’s very, very true! Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. Because you get this kind of like, I don’t know, say if I said, hey, friend, you go out to dinner a lot, what’s a new, a hot new restaurant in town? And you sent me a link to your know, the New York Times food section, I would go, wow, good friend.
Maliha Aqeel: Yeah.
Derek DeWitt: That’s not a friendly conversation. I can look that up all by myself.
Maliha Aqeel: Exactly. And you know, what you’re really looking for is why did you like the restaurant? You know, what made it special to you? Because one of the things that we have seen is word of mouth is now digital. It’s all online. You have all of these things that are happening in an entire world online. And that social listening that I was talking about. You know, you’ve got conversational commerce. It’s the conversations that would happen over the fence are taking place online. And when someone asks for a recommendation, they’re asking for a recommendation from their friend, because they wanna know about your personal experience. They don’t wanna know what the Times editor thought about it. They wanna know what you, Derek, thought about that restaurant. What made it special to you? What did they do that would make you wanna go back to them again and again? And often these conversations are happening on Google My Business. They’re happening when somebody leaves a review. They’re happening in Facebook groups. They’re happening in, you know, in all of these different, Reddits and others. And there’s so many places where a conversation happens and that word of mouth is so fragmented now that you don’t have fences anymore. You have so many ways you could go and….
You know, I don’t know if you do this, but whenever I’m researching a brand and I go to the reviews, I wanna know what that one-star review said. But you know, whenever I look at those reviews as well, I kind of go like, okay, whatever the negative reviews are, are they talking about things that I can live with? Are they talking about things that I personally would not have an issue with? And is it more subjective? But it’s always interesting because it just tells you that there is a wide audience out there and you cannot please everybody, right?
And so, when you are a brand, you have to be laser-focused on what is that subset of the general population that you wanna target? So, you know, you may decide depending on your brand, you’re gonna target people in their 40s who have disposable income, take at least two vacations a year. They’re looking for a certain kind of lifestyle. And they’re looking to have the brand make life easy for them. You’re looking for people that value convenience and are willing to pay a premium for that convenience. So if you are a travel brand, if you are a concierge brand, a hotel brand, whatever the case is, and you have that as your audience, every single thing that you do from the moment that customer books – sorry, even before they book the vacation with you – that entire experience all the way through to when they check out and leave and the review that they leave after, has to be very much designed with how that customer would engage with the brand. And the kinds of motivations that they have to engage with your brand versus your competitor, who might offer a similar experience.
So, you have to ask yourselves, how do I differentiate myself from my competitors? Because we’re all targeting that subset audience. And we know that that audience is highly discerning, and that they will be looking for very particular things to make sure that they get the best travel experience. And because they do this, they travel often, they’re gonna want to make sure that every single trip that they have meets all of the checks in their list. And therefore we as brand have to do it. And so everything, from the content that you’re producing to the customers you’re targeting to that culture of why you do it and how you do it, is ultimately what it comes down to when you’re building that purpose-driven brand and also purpose-driven communication programs.
Derek DeWitt: So, that is the Four A’s, and a little bit about the Golden Circle, of purpose-driven content. And obviously this stuff is applicable across the board, whether you make little toys that end up at the bottom of cereal boxes, and later get stepped on and sucked up by your vacuum cleaner or eaten by your dog, or you’re doing luxury villa holidays on some tropical island, and everything in between. It doesn’t really matter.
Communications is communications, and the ideas behind modern communications as modern audiences are evolving and connecting and changing are all kind of very similar. And this is very much what we’ve been talking about today with my guest Maliha Aqeel, who is an independent communications consultant, and the founder and CEO of Ideas Collective in Toronto, Canada. What is the Ideas Collective? What’s that all about?
Maliha Aqeel: Yeah, the Ideas Collective is my consulting business. And we work with B2B brands, primarily in the financial services industry, and we help position them as industry thought leaders through relevant and insightful content. So, everything from creating thought leadership programs to how to incorporate thought leadership as part of their marketing efforts.
Derek DeWitt: Hmm. All right. Please check the transcript of this podcast episode on the Visix website, go to Visix/Resources/Podcasts, and you’ll get a link to the Ideas Collective. And of course, I think we’ll also add, I assume you’re on LinkedIn. I can’t imagine you wouldn’t be.
Maliha Aqeel: Yes. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m the only Maliha Aqeel that you will find in Canada. There is another one in France with my name, but you will find me very obviously on LinkedIn.
Derek DeWitt: So, there you go, easy to find her on LinkedIn as well. Hey, it’s been a really interesting conversation. I know that the there’s much, much more you could talk about. I find this shift in the way that audiences….It’s funny to me because the audiences and the consumers and the marketplace seem to be changing faster than the organizations and companies that’re trying to reach out to them. And in many ways, it’s almost like if you had an old-fashioned way of looking at things, you might say, it’s the tail wagging the dog. But I rather think it’s kind of like the dog is going on a walk and pulling the owner behind it a little bit. You know, we the consumers seem to be the ones who are kind of determining what changes the organizations need to make.
Maliha Aqeel: Exactly. It’s the age of the empowered consumer.
Derek DeWitt: Ooh, I like that. I’m gonna get a t-shirt that says that. All right, well, thank you very much for talking to me, Ms. Aqeel. As I said, super interesting.
Maliha Aqeel: Great! Well, thank you so much for having me.
Derek DeWitt: Absolutely. And thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.