Brand activism, business and social commitment

Alfredo de Paz

21 September 2017

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Over the last few years we have witnessed some brands use, to varying degrees of success, different communication and marketing tools to position themselves around political or social topics that relate, in some way, to their consumers and contributors. Often, the brand is simply responding to a new, more powerful user, able to make more informed and rational decisions during the buying process. These users expect brands to treat them with the same respect and consideration that they are used to receiving within wider society and within the communities in which they operate.

The way in which a brand responds is motivated, in some cases, by questions and topics in relation to societal issues that arise spontaneously, leaving no time to plan a response. However, users value this type of off-the-cuff response just as they value  those campaigns that take months to prepare.

In January this year, Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, announced on Twitter that Airbnb would put up free housing for refugees who had migrated from the 7 muslim countries banned from the US by Donald Trump, making his own opinion of the law clear. Just a few days ago a spokesperson from the same company, Nick Papas, told the Guardian that “Airbnb is 100% committed to protecting the dreamers”, highlighting their obligation to the construction of a more open and connected world

On the flip side, we have Uber, who kept operating during the pro-refugee taxi-driver strike at JFK Airport in January this year, while also cutting the price of fares. This decision was understood by users of the app as an expression of support for the law and exploitative of the situation.The result was thousands of negative messages on social media criticising the brand and, it is estimated that this led to a drop of 200,000 users (despite Uber pledging about $3 million to help those Uber workers impacted by Trump’s ban).

As we pointed out in this post, what citizens expect from brands is explored in great detail in the report Meaningful Brands published by Havas. According to the report 75% of consumers hope that brands will do something more than just  contribute to our wellbeing, although only 40% think it will actually happen. Additional  data from Havas reveals that 74% of consumers would not care  if the brands they used disappeared, suggesting a certain degree of  apathy.

In this environment, where the relationship between client and society grows increasingly complex, we imagine that the companies who emerge unscathed will be those capable of integrating causes and ideals into their business model. Those that feel a need to contribute or add something of value to society, incorporate into their core business  values they share  with the three elements of society: consumer, worker and citizen.

Therefore, brands should prioritise people at the centre of their strategy, as this is the most efficient, solid and sustainable form of strengthening the business and generating shared value with society (and not only with shareholders).

In the face of these challenges, brands should no longer place their focus on isolated messages and tactical actions, taking advantage of specific situations. Instead, it is increasingly important to consider the wider relationship a company has with its consumers and the value it contributes to society through its business model – just as we observed with AirBnb’s response to Trump’s order to limit the circulation and entrance of people into the United States.

How can we face this change in model?

Gabriel Mercel (1889-1973) said, “when one does not live as they think, one ends up thinking as one lives¨,  in a message understood by those  brands that invite us to think about the necessity of shared values, incorporated into all aspects of the business.

There are many examples of companies introducing their values into their business model, and the number of businesses doing the same continues to grow brands like Lush, Ben & Jerry’s, BodyShop, Unilever, and Patagonia.

We are not talking about corporate philanthropy, or voluntary programmes run by the brand itself, but about incorporating company values (shared by the clients) as part of the business model and the brand’s positioning. Lars Rebien Sorensen, CEO of Novo Nordisk (ranked number 1 in the 2015 HBR ranking of CEOs for best achievement), explained; “the objective is to maximise the value of a company long term and in the long term to convert the social assets and environmentals into financial assets”.

But, how can we start to define the values of a brand and introduce them into the business model? The objective is to integrate different social factors where they appropriate, generating shared value.

Some of the tools that can help us start the process are:

  • Social Tracking: Analysing the relationship between the company and the community in which it has developed: what they agree on and what policies they share? How can brands create and share economic, social and environmental value?
  • Open innovation or co-creation: In addition to social tracking analysis, we can establish mechanics of open innovation and co-creation with the different related brand audiences, those that help us to define intrinsic values brands share with consumers, and build around these values, putting people at the centre of the brand’s activity.
  • Business models centred around the people: To generate disruptive strategies that respond to the demands of modern society, creating value and transparency. For example, a company that sells ecological products that develops a 100% sustainable product model, who have reached an real understanding with their suppliers in order to achieve a production model respectful of the environment, as well as the health and wellbeing of their customer.

We’re not trying to say that companies that do not integrate a societal or environmental stance into their business model are going to disappear. Obviously, companies on both sides of the river will continue to triumph and fail. However, when a brand actively involves itself in the causes and ideals that affect society, they’re likely to achieve a level of relevance and transparency that, doubtless, provides them with a competitive advantage.