Make Your Brand Social Statements Actually Drive Change and Results

As marketers, we must look at corporate social responsibility programs as more than blanket statements about an ideal world and big cash donations to associations related to a given cause, and instead outline the actions we will take across all areas of our brands to effect change.

When I wrote my first book, I had the privilege of interviewing Earl Graves, the founder of Black Enterprise magazine and a highly successful entrepreneur that inspired many people beyond business. I was excited to ask him about the steps he took to reach his goals, and the guiding principles that had helped him sustain growth for several decades. What he told me was surprisingly simple, and even more profound. His words:

“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”

That was it. This coming from a man that was with Robert F. Kennedy on the fateful day he was shot, a former board member of American Airlines and the Boy Scouts of America, and founder, editor and publisher of one of the most successful publications serving entrepreneurs nationwide.

Those words go through my mind more frequently and rapidly than ever as I watch the civic and business reactions to the modern-day lynching of George Floyd. I read wonderfully profound statements — carefully crafted by marketing and PR executives, speech writers, and humanitarians across all industries — that express their values and commitments to never engage in any kind of discrimination: racial, gender, age, religious, and so on. And I wonder. I wonder how realistic it is that these companies will ever truly change, or bluntly, really do anything about social injustices in their local communities or beyond.

Many of you are likely behind a brand’s statement of commitment to never practice racism. However, words at times like these are cheap. Eloquence is often offensive as it projects ideals that have not been adhered to when they should have, and likely won’t be sustained for long, if ever, if entire cultures don’t change. Many of us agree that there are many wrongs with this crisis and others impacting society, but really don’t understand how we are part of the wrong, even though we claim, “we don’t talk like that” or “we don’t think like that.” The wrong that many of us commit is trying to resolve issues with just words and thoughts, not actions.

The only way for business leaders to effect the change they write about in their statements is to back them up with a solid action plan. As you ponder putting out statements about your brand’s commitments and values, ask yourself, your executive team, and staff members:

  • What is the goal behind our actions?
  • What actions are necessary to reach our goal?
  • How will you involve every employee and every aspect of our business?
  • How will you measure and repeat our success?

Doing what is politically correct at the moment based upon how the wind is blowing is not adequate, or acceptable. Customers demand more of brands. They support companies that have longstanding commitments to social responsibility, and not just when under pressure or a microscope. In fact, consumer behavior research from Cone Communications shows that more than 80% of consumers will switch to brands that practice social values.

Hosting an annual diversity fair at work and encouraging people of various groups to listen to one another for a day is not going to cut it, either. Real change requires real actions that are built upon reflection and introspection as to how individuals and company cultures or practices could be contributing to a problem.

Another friend whom I interviewed for my second book, Toby Usnik, who just authored his own book, “The Caring Economy,” has been advising brands of all sizes to build a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan that is actionable and measurable. He advises businesses to look at their CSR programs as not single acts or commitments to do A or B, or a point of arrival, but rather a spectrum of caring. This spectrum of caring embraces the totality of a brand’s character, behavior, actions, expenditures and values. Usnik says:

“Once a brand declares its place on the spectrum through it public reporting, it should then strive to move further up the spectrum to an even more responsible and caring place. One that is recognized by all its stakeholders.”

Usnik reflects on what he calls “darker angels and “better angels.” Darker angels continue to maintain the status quo even when they know what they are doing is wrong and dangerous. Better angels are those who spend the time to identify what they are doing that could be wrong, dangerous, harmful to others, socially unjust in anyway, subtle or more overt.

He cites a social app brand that decided to confront racism by removing race and ethnicity filters. This alone is a serious step forward. Imagine if employee applications did not ask race, gender, or ethnicity questions? What would that mean for processes based on equality and qualifications? Yes, these are optional to complete, but many of us choose to do so to give ourselves every chance possible of making the short list. But again, why do these issues get asked if they really don’t matter and have a possibility of driving biases or discrimination.

Bottom line, as marketers, we must look at corporate social responsibility programs as more than blanket statements about an ideal world and big cash donations to associations related to a given cause, and instead outline the actions we will take across all areas of our brands to effect change.

According to Usnik, who outlines action plans for businesses in his book, we must look at our social programs, commitments, and behaviors as “movements.” People will get behind and support movements more than protocols or rules that someone else imposes on them. Usnik suggests people review the standards and processes set forth by ISO 26000 – guidelines established by the International Organization for Standardization.

We need to identify actions at every level of an organization that contribute to the sum of a brand’s persona and character. We must look at our hiring practices, the questions we ask, our advertising images and statements, our treatment of employees, the actions of our managers and other leaders, the types of conversations we have with all of our constituents, down to the adjectives we use.

How Do Change and Commitment Build Brands?

We as humans, consumers, and citizens want to be part of something that not only furthers our values; we want to be part of the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi stated. When the brands we work for enable us to do so, and self-actualize within our job environments, we are not just loyal, we are driven to help our businesses succeed well beyond our job descriptions. This kind of employee loyalty is key to success now and will be for years to come.

Per Cone Communications on CSR and consumer choice and loyalty, and other studies by Nielsen, consumers make purchasing choices according to values and how much a brand gives back to people, causes, and the earth. Some of the brands who will rise above the chaos now and in the future largely because they operate according to an established list of values for supporting people, causes, and our planet are Patagonia, Tom’s Shoes, Gymboree, Warby Parker, Uncommon Goods, and many more. You can view a long list of brands that have committed to being good and doing good here.

I remember hearing the late poet and civil right activist, Maya Angelou, explain in an interview that she once asked some of her friends at a party at her own house to leave immediately because they were making derogatory comments about a racial or ethnic group, and she would not allow that energy in her home.

Years later, I remember this statement and try to reflect on it regarding the energy I put into my work; at home for my family and self; as well as within my thoughts, words and deeds, in an effort to assure that my actions reflect the values I believe I have, want to have, and want to promote to others.

I encourage business leaders to ponder the same as leaders set the culture through their actions more than their words.

When it comes to addressing issues of the time, of the future, and of the past it really comes down to those simple words Earl Graves told me year ago:

“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”

Social Commentary in Authentic Brand Messaging

Should brands act, behave and communicate like people? Authenticity must be the measure. The content of any social commentary needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for — rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

Should brands act, behave, and communicate like people?

I’m sick and angry. It may seem like 1968 this past week — but folks, it’s 2020. Can’t we have a generation raised that eschews privilege based on race, and just respects each individual, all individuals, with love and merit as our default?

Obviously this is a personal perspective, and thank you for allowing me to indulge. So let me also ask again: Can and should brands make such statements of their own?

Content: Getting Past the Predictable to the Unique

This past week, I was fortunate to listen in on a Direct Marketing Club of New York “midweek recharge” teleconference on COVID-19 and brand loyalty, led by current DMCNY President Ginger Conlon and Deb Gabor, principal and founder of Sol Marketing (Austin, TX). How ironic that our inboxes are filled with “We’re all in this together” type messages from brands, while this past week we’re also very much reminded that, in reality, we really are not all in this together. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, just as they are with police brutality and a host of other societal aspects.

Gabor was insistent that brands very much act like people — and should. Authenticity must be the measure, however, in what they have to say, she reported. The content of such messages needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for, rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

With regard to COVID-19, one might think of ways brands could communicate to customers about how they are protected when doing business with the brand. But is this the best, first message?

Perhaps, a more important constituency might come first: how these messages are stronger when they focus on employee well-being and a thankfulness for first-responders and essential workers. I duly appreciate Wal-Mart and Amazon brands for emphasizing these aspects in their current advertising and marketing. Certainly, these brands are not without vulnerability. There’s much attention on such brands regarding living wages and labor participation in the management of their business strategies, even as they hire thousands of workers amid this employment crisis.

Unique Statements Anchored in Core Values and Empathy

We cannot forget about empathy, and how this must be part of any brand social commentary regarding race, gender, sexual identity, or housing and economic status. As Americans, we need to draw a line anywhere where discrimination and hate, ambivalence or indifference, rears its ugly head. Ben & Jerry clearly shows where it stands on Black Lives Matters, and minces no words:

Even in the world of ad tech, we’ve seen some powerful statements, such as this one from San Francisco-based TechSoup, a company which offers software solutions in the philanthropy community, and is putting its resources to work. In an email, CEO Rebecca Masisak and Chief Community Impact Officer Marnie Webb co-wrote:

We need more than the reallocation of resources; we need systems changed. We need to be a part of that, in our organization, in our communities, and in our country.

This is what we are doing right now to address a piece of the crisis in the U.S.:

• Continue to investigate our own privilege so that we can embed racial equity into our work.

• Make the reach of our platforms available for the voices that need to be heard. Right now, at this moment, that means:

• Active listening

• Amplifying the messages of Black-led community organizations, philanthropists, and journalists

• Inviting others who want to make use of our platform to use it to share their messages and engage others in communication

• Raise money to defray the costs and support the optimization of technology for Black-led organizations and community groups.

Brands and Support for Democracy

Among trade associations, cheers, too, for the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) for enabling its employees this week to dedicate paid time off each month to work for social change:

These brands are indeed acting like people — because they are composed of people (investors, owners, customers, employees) who are motivated to share their values in a powerful way. Not every brand may be in a position to speak on racial injustice, or COVID-19, with authenticity. But we — as members of the human race — might best stand for each other. What other choice do good folks, and good brands, have?


Social Responsibility New Trend — Marketers Need to Prepare

Social responsibility is the new trend, and marketers need to prepare. I will confess that until recently, the North Star of my professional journey has been growing shareholder value.

Social responsibility is the new trend, and marketers need to prepare. I will confess that until recently, the North Star of my professional journey has been growing shareholder value. On the positive, this prime directive has allowed strange bedfellows to conduct business across ideological, racial, and political lines. In many cases, the drive to grow shareholder returns has broken barriers where cultural change was still trailing. It has also simplified objectives and brought clarity in critical business decisions.

But there seem to be some noticeable cracks developing in the shareholder value model. After all, what good is wealth in a world with growing income disparity (revolution, anyone?), polluted oceans, record heat waves and social isolation? The more we read about current events; the more doomsday prepping seems like a sane activity.

Recently, the Business Roundtable, a grouping of 192 large company CEOs declared that business should take a broader view of who they serve, beyond customers and shareholders, and include employees, suppliers and the communities they operate in. (Before you get overly excited, comrade, let’s not forget that CEO compensation is still primarily liked to profitable growth and stock value.) Nevertheless, businesses are starting to make changes.

Marriott, along with other large hotel chains, is announcing a transition away from single-use plastic toiletry bottles. We have also seen employee pay or benefits increases at Amazon, Walmart, and Target. There are also companies, like Nike and Patagonia, who are taking social stands in very visible ways. For some companies, social responsibility has been a part of their DNA for any years; for others, it is now becoming an existential imperative.

As a result, the statement from the Business Roundtable is not visionary thinking; rather, it is an acceptance of growing consumer discontent. There is a change in the zeitgeist, driven by consumers and citizens, against business as usual.

As marketers, this might feel liberating. We can finally be free of the oppressive “bean counters” who lorded the principle of shareholder value over every creative idea. No, no, we can’t. The marketer’s job has actually gotten harder and even more metrics-based.

While calculating metrics, such as cost per click, costs per conversion have become routine for most marketers, the measurement of marketing and experience decisions will become more complex. Take the simple example of eliminating plastic shampoo bottles in hotels. The ROI of this decision is not just about plastic bottle costs. For some hotel brands, toiletries are an important touchpoint in delivering a premium experience.

  • Does a bulk shampoo dispenser convey the same premium experience?
  • Are there better alternatives and what are their costs?
  • How will it impact brand positioning?
  • Does the average consumer understand the change, and will they see it as a benefit or a loss?

The recommendation from the Business Roundtable will require a business to think more holistically about how they derive profitable growth, but the drive for profitability is not going away. Marketers will now need to speak for more than just the customer and justify the costs of making socially responsible decisions. In some cases, the customer will not be a direct beneficiary of business decisions. Rather, they will be a partner who is asked to pay more or get less in the interest of the “greater good.”

The “easy” news is that customers are asking for these changes. The “tough” news is that profits still matter, and balancing that with the needs of customers and the society at large will be a more complex equation.