Lush, Morgan Stanley, and the Elephant: Identify Your Company Cause

When I was growing up, companies didn’t take stands on ethical or social issues. They didn’t advocate a better way to live, or appeal to consumers to be better than we were. Brands just figured out what people wanted to buy, and sold it. And the result was we caused a lot of suffering, got sick, wasted resources, and permanently damaged the planet. We also set a standard that many companies still follow, even though it’s hurting their ability to engage their audience.

Everyone is Worried About Losing a Customer, Not Winning an Audience.

The period from the 60s to the 90s was a period of transition. We ended segregation, passed the Equal Rights Amendment, and spent more than three decades in a cold war. The US was a divided country politically, morally, and ideologically. The marketing landscape was fraught with ambiguities and potential landmines. Even now, it will make some of us uncomfortable just to have another business person say this out loud. Businesses certainly didn’t want to risk alienating one segment of the population by supporting the viewpoint of another.

Value-Neutral Marketing Creates an Accountability-Free Marketplace.

The result is we stripped the activity of enterprise and entrepreneurship of values. And we continue to reap the results of that, whether we recall the Enron Scandal or the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial collapse of 2007. It doesn’t end there. We can look at companies that played both sides of every war, that falsified studies and bought legislation, that turned over to totalitarian governments the identities of their users after converting them to users in the first place, and that cooperated with some fairly ugly activities that required special laws exempting them from criminal punishment. It’s safe to say, things had (and have) got bad.

Enter the Consumer With Unlimited Options.

What has changed is consumers have access to far more options, driven by the ubiquity of the internet. We’re exercising with our buying habits a psychological need to feel good about the products and services we choose, and we see them in a broader context – as part of what connects us to the larger world.

If we still had to go to a store for everything, the change could not have occurred, because finite space necessarily limits our options. If we couldn’t share information the way we can now, with the rise of social media and the prevalence of broadband and wifi, the change also could not have happened. But once we had both instant access to nearly anyone everyone else on the planet, AND a virtually unlimited marketplace of ALL available products and services, we automatically acquired the luxury of making value-driven choices. We became value driven consumers.

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See the Normalization of the Socially Conscious Brand.

Brands have emerged for whom advocating a particular view of the world is key to audience loyalty and their ability to compete with much larger companies that have more resources but struggle to keep consumers engaged.

We’re probably familiar with the most notable examples. The incredibly popular sports and outdoor apparel brand, Patagonia insists on creating fair and humane working conditions, and making ecologically aware clothing. For every pair of shoes sold by Tom’s Shoes, it gives a pair away, and it makes significant contributions to end the negative results of poverty for children.

The most telling proof that taking a stand has become the norm is who is buying and maintaining brands that have done this so well. Dannon bought Stonyfield Farms. Colgate-Palmolive bought Tom’s of Maine. Pepsi bought Honest Tea. Ben and Jerry’s (which insists on organic, free range, and fair trade ingredients) was bought by Unilever. The list goes on ad infinitum.

The Sin, Now, is in Muffling Your Own Horn.

There’s also a quieter truth, that many brands, including service-based companies, are doing business in a value-driven way. And yet they’re missing the opportunity to connect with their audience in the area of values, either from fear of offending or concern that they’ll be seen as tooting their own horn.

That’s where cause based marketing comes in. Instead of worrying about who we might lose for taking a stand, we trust in who we’ll win. It’s not about “look at me, look at me”; it’s about “JOIN me, and let’s do something valuable together.” In that sense, burying your cause behind too much delicacy isn’t humble, it’s failing the cause itself. That’s the same mistake we made in previous decades of cause-free companies.

There’s No More Forgiveness for Underestimating Our Audience.

Cynicism doesn’t sell, and we can’t fake authenticity. Once we understand this properly, the only issue left is whether we do, in fact, stand for anything. Companies that don’t are living in a different era. So find your cause, and mean it, and commit to something greater than your brand. Doing so will make your brand great.

To say it again, a campaign of SIMULATING commitment to a cause has NO positive impact. Consumers are savvy and resistant to fluff. You’re much better off making a tangible, specific change to your business processes that you can document and tie to the sale.

Revenue Positive Examples

The Environment: Like Patagonia, Lush is a great example–they make everything from shampoo bars to toothpaste tablets. Among its ethical and charitable programs, Lush combats animal testing, cultivates sustainable packaging, and uses 100% vegetarian ingredients. I washed my hair with Lush’s soak and float shampoo bar today. Its cade oil cured me of flaky scalp.

Poverty: Like Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker gives a pair of eye glasses to the poor for each one you buy. Their nerdcore, hipster chic is also iconic for Millennials, representing a rejection of obsolete beauty norms. You wear glasses? You’re not a “four eyes”; you’re cool.

Gay Rights: Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) made a sizable public donation to support the right of same-sex unions in Washington. GM publicly denounced a proposed Minnesota rule to ban gay marriage.Nabisco, Target, and J.C. Penney have run gay-themed advertising campaigns, as have Expedia and Amazon. Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nike have also shown public support. Ben and Jerry’s announced it won’t serve two scoops of any same flavor of ice-cream in Australia until that nation reforms its marriage laws.

Similarly, Anheuser-Busch brand “Bud Light” recreated a symbol of marriage equality (the red equals sign) with two cans of its beer, showing its support. It has taken flack on Facebook over it, but it’s pretty sure the positive association of its brand with the issue will outweigh any criticism. That’s a key point. You don’t take a stand without pissing someone off. You also don’t grow as fast, because you don’t take a stand. So it’s not for the squeamish but, overall, it’s a revenue positive move.

You Can’t Ignore the Elephant in the White House

It doesn’t matter if you adore Trump or loathe him (there seems to be little in between); we don’t get to talk about trust in 1973 without referencing Nixon, and we don’t get to pretend corporate stands on social issues didn’t accelerate dramatically in 2017.

It would be ignoring the most potent force in ethical entrepreneurship to skip over the momentous events and highly public reactions of companies as ‘traditional’ as Morgan Stanley, Salesforce, and Ford in the wake of the travel ban, Charlottesville, and other events (e.g. the Las Vegas shooting). To quote from a 2012 Fox News article:

“Companies are a bellwether of what is in the mainstream,” said Marc Solomon, the national campaign manager for Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that advocates for same-sex marriage. “When you have some of the mainstays of corporate leadership stand up, that’s important. It sends a powerful message about where our society is right now.”

Immigrant Rights: AirBNB offered housing assistance to people displaced by the January 2017 travel ban. Dropbox and Etsy also spoke up. Google created a crisis fund to support immigrant rights organizations. Linkedin, Instacart, Lyft, Netflix, Nike, Postmates, Salesforce, Slack, Starbucks, and Twitter all spoke up. So did Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Ford, Kickstarter, and Allergan according to Ad Week. Asics, too.

Racism: After what many companies viewed as an inadequate response to the hate groups assembled in Charlottesville, Paypal blocked accounts used by hate groups to transfer funds, Spotify banned artists promoting white supremacy, Godaddy and Google shut down racist websites, AirBNB launched an internal campaign to prevent its service from being used to offer hospitality to white supremacists, and American Express stopped racist websites from accepting Amex. And of course, Merck’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from the President’s Industry Council.

We could go into gun violence, gender, drug use, and other issues, but you get the point. The very idea of a company that takes ZERO ethical stands, is fast becoming absurd. And a key warning here is that fluff won’t cut it; we can’t ignore the issues that make the headlines. Fear of alienating anyone will ultimately alienate more and more people over time.

This post originally appeared November 14, 2015 and is making its reappearance with newly added case studies.

These ideas don’t grow on trees. They’re part of what MadPipe helps clients achieve through marketing leadership and strategy. Everybody needs somebody, and that’s true of companies as well. Reach out and get yourself a remote Marketing Director. If you want to pursue this particular topic, see My Aspiration to Be a Social Entrepreneur at Forbes.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides leadership in marketing, educational programs, and organizational transformation for brands that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, writes a Forbes column, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, and Success Magazine.

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About once/month, Corporate Storyteller and Digital Ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting stories around organizational transformation, education, and marketing.

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