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Brands Taking Stands: A Movement, Not a Moment


As a journalist, I’ve always searched out cultural trends as I saw them developing, in a constant search for “what’s next.” This is especially true of the Brands Taking Stands movement.

“What’s next” is, of course, of major importance to business. Looking ahead to map out strategy is critical to continued success. But which trends are the right ones with which to align future plans? Which ones will matter months, even years, down the line?

What business strategists, and those of us who report on their projections, are on the lookout for is a trend that becomes much more than a cultural snapshot. We’re talking about a defining idea of the zeitgeist that carries large, long-lasting consequences for society as well as for business—in a phrase, a movement--not a moment.

In this newsletter, we’ve argued since its beginning that Brands Taking Stands is such an idea. Now, we have some numbers to back up our claim about this development in corporate activism. New research finds that eight-out-of-10 corporate leaders believe companies have an obligation to speak out on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. That’s according to a survey on brand advocacy conducted by GlobeScan and 3BL Media.

Results from the survey were debuted last month at the 3BL Forum. The report defines the Brands Taking Stands movement succinctly: “A growing roster of Blue Chip companies are using their powerful voices to urge continued U.S. support of the Paris Climate Agreement, to strengthen gun control laws, to fight immigration laws that would negatively impact Dreamers, to champion diversity and inclusion, and to protect LGBTQ rights, among other hot-button and often political issues.”

The future workforce and brand reputation are revealed as the two principle reasons for the movement. “The tightening labor market, specifically competitive pressure for companies to recruit and retain talent, is a key driver of the Brands Taking Stands movement, followed by efforts to protect and enhance corporate reputation.”

Key findings include:

  • 82 percent of respondents said it is necessary for companies today to advocate for or take a stand on ESG issues.
  • 62 percent felt that advocacy by CEOs, rather than by the company more broadly, will increase in the next 18 months.
  • When asked to specify the three highest priorities for their organizations over the next 18 months, top responses were brand values, climate and environment, and diversity and inclusion.
  • Motivators for companies to take stands on ESG topics were to 1) enhance their reputation, 2) show a commitment beyond profit, and to 3) meet employee expectations.
  • Benefits of speaking out are 1) personnel recruitment, 2) employee retention and 3) brand equity.

“It’s early days for this movement,” said Eric Whan, a GlobeScan director. “Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s of Maine and Patagonia and others have been doing this for a while. Now, others are finding that it is in their own interest and that of their stakeholders to take a position rather than ducking.”

In a way, Brands Taking Stands is one of those “trends” that we have been reporting on at 3BL Media since 2009. The clients whose messages we have distributed and about whose news we have published original reporting come to us with missions, principles, values, and initiatives—all built on taking positions beyond those limited to bottom-line results. The concept may be said to have burst into visibility within the larger culture in 2015-16, when hundreds of companies took stances on matters of public policy.

The movement picked up speed exponentially in 2018 (with efforts such as CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion). This year started off with a bang when Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times “DealBook,” characterized the public letter from BlackRock’s Larry Fink calling on companies to serve a social purpose “a watershed moment on Wall Street, one that raises all sorts of questions about the very nature of capitalism.”

As Steve Rendle, CEO of VF Corporation and CR Magazine’s Responsible CEO of the Year: Public Company, put it at our 2018 3BL Forum, “Consumers are starting to make decisions on the brands that they interact with based on what the company stands for -- not necessarily what you make, but what is the value you’re providing to the community and the world.”

If we trace the arc of this still-developing movement from those epic January statements to this year-end research, it’s clear that Brands Taking Stands is a movement and one on a roll.

Get used to it.

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Image credit: GlobeScan co-CEO Chris Coulter onstage at 3BL Forum 2018 discussing the future of business leadership