(Image: Storied management strategist Mona Amodeo (left) and other thought leaders discuss why brands take stands at the 2019 3BL Forum.)
Gone are the days when companies and their executives can stay silent about the defining issues of the day. Nearly two-thirds of global consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues, and 56 percent say they have “no respect” for CEOs who stay silent, according to research from Edelman.
The shift in public expectations is clear. Still, after decades of staying out of the fray for fear of offending potential customers, many in the business world are unsure of how and when to make their voices heard.
At the 2019 3BL Forum, more than 90 speakers on the main stage—from executives of major multinationals, to founders of purpose-driven startups, to researchers well-versed in the latest consumer trends—shared valuable insights that can help chart the way forward.
Together, they looked to answer two simple yet loaded questions: What’s next in the brands taking stands movement—and, more importantly, why should companies get involved? Read on for the need-to-know insights shared on day two of the Forum, held at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C.
According to Edelman's data, 84 percent of people now expect CEOs to "inform conversations and policy debates" on pressing societal issues. In order to do this successfully, they must first understand why their companies exist beyond the bottom line, says Mona Amodeo, founder of the brand transformation firm idgroup and author of “Beyond Sizzle: The Next Evolution of Branding.”
"Organizations must believe they have a deep social contract with society, and that’s not something that you wake up one morning and decide," she said at the 3BL Forum. "It’s really an internal truth. It’s about looking deep inside one’s self and asking: What do I believe my company’s responsibility is? What do we give, and what do we take? And with that comes the ability, as a leader, to be an advocate and a storyteller about the core values of an organization—to talk about it, to preach about it, to believe in it and to engage others in it."
How many times have you heard business leaders squabble about what to call their purpose activations? Are they ESG? CSR? Sustainability? Put all of those annoying think pieces aside, because really, the semantics don't matter—and even further, they can hold you back, says Barie Carmichael, senior advisor of the strategic communications consultancy APCO Worldwide.
"Sometimes definitions get in the way of actual actions," she said on Wednesday. "People are so worried about whether it’s an S or a G or an E. At the end of the day, the authentic content for a company are its actions—not its pledges. What you do is the proof, particularly for the younger generation. And the people who will call you on it if you get it wrong are largely your own employees."
In today's tight labor market, the battle is on to recruit, retain and engage top talent—and the brands that are willing to get real will be the ones to win the day, says Bryan de Lottinvile, founder and CEO of the corporate responsibility and employee engagement software provider Benevity.
"The trust piece is both an opportunity and an expectation, which we often call a 'problem-tunity.' But the companies that get it right and have an authentic program that is inclusive and a culture that is compelling to the diverse demographics in the workforce, they will win," de Lottinvile said. "They will win the talent war. They will win the brand war, both with employees and consumers. And our data is proving that out."
Meredith Ferguson and DoSomething Strategic, the social impact consulting arm of DoSomething.org, have their fingers on the pulse of the younger generation, what they're looking for and what engages them. We already know these young people prefer brands that take stands, but that's only the beginning—what they really crave is a way to get involved. "What young people are looking for is to be a part," said Ferguson, managing director of DoSomething Strategic and one of the most powerful voices for youth and social impact.
"So many business people think they have to push out what they stand for and their cause platform. And yes, you should absolutely do that—you need to talk about it consistently and everywhere. But the easiest way to make an impact on a consumer and an employee is to invite them to be a part," she continued. "They’re few and far between right now, but brands that do this are building a loyalty based on shared values—not on price point, not on new product releases, just on shared values. And what an opportunity that presents to build a community of like-minded individuals who will be loyal for the long term."
If you think it's hard to hide from criticism now, you're in for a rude awakening in the near future, says Peter Kozodoy, author of the forthcoming book, “Honest to Greatness: How Today’s Greatest Leaders Use Brutal Honesty to Achieve Massive Success.”
"Do we all really think we’re not going to approach a time when we can ask Siri, 'Is that CEO full of sh*t?'" he asked rhetorically, to a chorus of laughter, on day two of the Forum. "The last thing I want to see is a company showing me their sustainability report. That’s great, but so what? Carrying honesty throughout the organization, not just in a sustainability report, will create a company that smashes the competition in their industry."
For decades, most companies assumed that investors, customers and other stakeholders weren't interested in ESG. And for most of that time, they were probably right. But no longer, says Megan Fielding, senior director of responsible investing for U.S. asset manager Nuveen.
"ESG matters. It matters to investors. It matters to your stakeholders. It matters to all of us," she said at the 3BL Forum. "Years ago, it had this reputation of being a nice-to-have. Or companies reframed content they already had and created a template to share with investors and check the box, saying they had ESG information available. But today, it really matters. It’s financially material to your company and to the work you do. And from an investor’s perspective, it's a critical component of how we’re evaluating companies when we purchase for the long term."
In case you missed it: Click here to follow our coverage of the 2019 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands—What's Next.
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.