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January, 2024

Greenhushing replaces purpose: Infosys’ global CMO on holding the ESG line, AI at the Australian Open and three foundational lessons

What you need to know:

  • Purpose and promise, purpose and performance are critical composites for brands looking to build successful partnerships and client relationships, according to Infosys global CMO, Sumit Virmani.
  • Yet against the growing trends of greenhushing and plummeting consumer sentiment around brand purpose, he can see why brands potentially think the sheen has come off purpose as a marketing and brand message.
  • For Infosys, its partnership with the Australian Open not only provides a platform for both purpose and promise to shine, it’s also delivering strong opportunities to showcase tech innovations such as AI in a constructive way.

Frankly, it’s never purpose or performance, nor is it purpose or promise – it’s purpose and promise, purpose and performance. For organisations that truly believe in purpose, it can’t be riding the narrative based on which way the wind is blowing. It’s about writing the narrative based on whether it’s truly integral and foundational to who you are as a company.

Sumit Virmani, Global CMO, Infosys

Promising net gains

For Virmani, the secret sauce to any successful partnership is combining promise and purpose. And it’s something the CMO says Infosys’ five-year-old relationship with the Australian Open has repeatedly demonstrated.

“Firstly, it’s about what we promise to our clients. At Infosys, we have the tagline, ‘Navigate your next’, but what does it really mean? Being in the business of tech, which is a fast-paced business, where disruptions come around corners rapidly… that’s about ensuing clients stay ahead of the curve with a little help from Infosys,” he tells Mi3.  

“The Australian Open is also a partner that’s incredibly innovative and visionary. It’s not just a happy slam but a fun place to experiment with new ideas and innovations. The promise has to be delivered at every step for partnership to be successful.

“The second thing is the dimension of purpose. It always strengthens a partnership when the alignment of the two partners is a lot deeper than just running the business. Both Tennis Australia and Infosys deeply believe in the idea of amplifying communities, taking what we do together to make difference.

“The reason it feels we’re blazing new trails is this strong alignment with partners on both promise and purpose pillars.”

Talking up purpose is feeling decidedly less cool than it was a couple of years ago. From warnings of a purpose void in the recent FutureBrand Index, to the AANA admitting brands are “terrified ” of being pulled up by regulators over green claims, to Unilever’s decision to step back from purpose before profit, a shift is underway in the way brands and businesses think about and portray purpose. Crackdowns on greenwashing claims in advertising only add to the fear of taking a stand, as are cash-strapped consumers increasingly demanding practical action over pure narrative or cultural alignment.

Virmani saw this fear of purpose pushback firsthand while attending the Davos global forum in January.

“One of the terms I heard for the first time is ‘greenhushing’. That’s being triggered by the facts you’re alluding to – despite doing good work on green progress, businesses and corporations are not talking about it,” he says. “Possibly, in some parts of the world there is also much stronger pushback on ESG or the green or purpose agenda.”

According to the 2023 Net Zero Report from carbon and offset consultancy, South Pole, based on 1,400 senior global sustainability professionals in 12 countries, 83 per cent of companies have set net zero targets and three in four have increased budgets. Yet 58 per cent are decreasing communications on climate issues, with 44 per cent saying it’s become more difficult to communicate externally. In addition, 18 per cent don’t plan to publicise their science-based targets. This is despite 93 per cent agreeing a net zero strategy is critical to commercial success.

Purpose is as purpose does

Where Virmani spies the problem is the fallout from superficial approaches to purpose. In a LinkedIn post, the CMO said “when purpose is a patch-job poor outcomes inevitably following, opening up brands to accusations of inauthenticity and customer ire”.

“Frankly, it’s never purpose or performance, nor is it purpose or promise – it’s purpose and promise, purpose and performance,” Virmani told Mi3. “For organisations that truly believe in purpose, it can’t be riding the narrative based on which way the wind is blowing. It’s about writing the narrative based on whether it’s truly integral and foundational to who you are as a company.”

Virmani suggests a very simple test could be this: If you have a well-articulated purpose, have you taken publicly visible measures around it?

“Have you actually gone out and staked the claim, or said within my ESG agenda, here are the big three goals I’m committing to, and I’m going to give you periodic updates around that? That’s one dimension of it,” he says. “As long as purpose is authentic, and drives your decisions and choices and isn’t just something playing out as a story, that’s key.

“At Infosys, we have experienced this as a big edge and differentiator for our brand and the business. However, if purpose is not authentic or backed by action, then of course you’ll have a scenario where you’re likely to get push back one way or another.”

By contrast, Virmani says its relationship with the Australian Open and Tennis Australia demonstrates that where there’s an opportunity to truly align to serve the larger community, both parties have stepped up.

“Take the bushfires in Australia, which affected so many lives – Tennis Australia stood up as a responsible corporation and said we need to get our partners together and make a difference. It didn’t take a heartbeat to say we’re in – we could relate to this. Similarly with Tennis for Peace,” he says.  

The work around Tennis Australia’s Future Leaders Program in NSW and Victoria is another manifestation of the power of purpose together opening up opportunities for people they’ve never imagined before, Virmani says. Launched in 2022, Future Leaders is a CSR initiative designed to engage and empower young people in volunteering and community leadership. It does this by getting participants involved in a 15-hour tennis project in collaboration with their tennis club, coach or community organisation. Infosys is providing its learning platform, Springboard, as the digital backbone for the program.

“The reason why the program is so close to our respective hearts is it’s touching lives in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the right intervention of technology, which is something we understand well,” Virmani says. “And it’s something Tennis Australia understands well. Over the last two years, that program has expanded. As long as we feel we can keep making a difference, I only see that growing more and more.”

AI innovations, climate concerns

The other tech platform Virmani sees making a difference every which way is AI. This year, Infosys has worked with the Australian Open on several AI-led innovations, using its Topaz large language models and cognitive platform. These include the ‘Bracket Challenge’ on the AO website, where fans could make predictions for the tournament and challenge themselves against AI, as well as check on a daily prediction of match winners.

The Infosys Match Centre was updated to include Gen AI Story Cards and a Key Stats feature providing contextual insights in a card-like format as the match progresses. AI Match Bytes, using Gen AI, creates match story visual cards and narrates the story of a match to fans. AI Shot of the Day saw daily highlights packaged as social media ready clips.

Then there is the Gen AI ‘Rafa Forever’ campaign, allowing fans to create a personalised artistic rendition of the tennis legend and Infosys ambassador through AI technology, So far, more than 15,000 artworks have been created.

3Es of AI for marketing

As a marketer, Virmani sees AI as the single biggest disruption most marketers will have come across in their careers.

“This is not incremental to marketing; it’s disruptive to marketing,” he says. As a result, he advises marketers to think about the impact of the technology across three dimensions: Efficiency, effectiveness and experience.

“Clearly, we’re going to be in a year where the economic situation continues to be tough for most markets. There will be pressure on discretionary spend and marketing spend. The question is: Can marketers use that as an incredible opportunity to extract value from their spending?” Virmani asks.  

The second piece is effectiveness. “The true success of any marketing function is driving results for their business and in a way the business understands it,” he says.

“It could be using AI to personalise messages in a way that wasn’t possible before as you suddenly have tech capability to do it that can analyse all the patterns,” Virmani says. “Similarly, find the right metrics and working closely with the c-suite; AI can only make a marketers more effective and relevant in the c-suite if it uses power of AI in the best way possible for them.”

The third piece Virmani sees less talked about but feels very strongly about is experience. “We possibly stop talking about the impact of AI largely with efficiency, because the cost equation gets overplayed. The real opportunity of AI is going to be in the area of experience and creativity,” he says.

“For example, our new campaign, Rafa Forever. Rafa is our brand ambassador, who was injured and couldn’t make the AO, disappointing millions of fans around the world. What if you can make it possible for each fan to create a very personalised graffiti celebrating the legacy of Rafa using Gen AI? It’s not just us making creative and putting it out there, thousands of fans are using the platform, creating their personalised imaginings of what a Rafa celebration should look like and posting it. Overnight, this tech has given us an opportunity to democratise creativity and empower every single fan.

“Those things weren’t possible before; this tech makes it possible. So to me, the real potential of AI is human ingenuity and the potential of leveraging it to unleash creativity.”