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Brands in Motion: Ethical Leadership in a World on the Move

WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin, WE Communications Blog: Brands in Motion

9/12/2018
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin 

What does bold leadership look like in an industry that’s trying to balance envelope-pushing innovation with care for its customers?

It’s a perennial question, of course — but this past year, it’s seemed more pressing than usual. As the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations changed the way businesses communicate with their customers in Europe and beyond; as Cambridge Analytica exploited data on some 50 million Facebook users; and as Google, YouTube and Twitter struggled (and continue to struggle) with content moderation, the conversation around technology and responsibility has grown sharper and more urgent.

It’s not just about what tech brands can do anymore. It’s about what they SHOULD do — to protect their users, to champion free speech while minimizing the harm toxic words can cause, and to create a better, more just society where information and communication tools are accessible to all.

In this context — an extraordinary stew of fear and mistrust, promise and possibility — we completed this year’s Brands in Motion global study. The results, out today, tell us a great deal about these most unusual times we live in. They also point to a path forward for brands willing to take a leap into audacious, purposeful leadership. 

Technology in motion

This year’s Brands in Motion global study went out to almost 27,000 consumers and B2B decision-makers in eight countries. We collected feedback on 90 brands and eight categories, including computing devices, tech B2B, smart home and more. And we learned some things we already knew: that consumers expect brands to continue driving innovation with technology; that they expect tech to push brands toward sustainability as well as quality and affordability; and that they prize the cutting edge above all else.

What’s new this year is the flip side of all this, an undercurrent of unease about all the trouble and disruption tech can cause. For example, security was a key concern: globally, 84 percent of the people we talked to feared their personal data might not be secure and 71 percent worried their medical records could be compromised. What’s more, more than half of our respondents said they feared they could lose their jobs to AI.

And they’re demanding that brands address these fears. An overwhelming 97 percent of respondents worldwide said that brands are responsible for their own ethical use of technology. Furthermore, 94 percent said that if brands can’t (or won’t) do it, then governments should step in to ensure that technology is used ethically.

It’s very rare to see such a unanimous response in a survey like this. It makes a very clear statement to brands: regulate or be regulated, period. Consumers are more invested than ever in brands that lead with ethical responsibility. In fact, they’re insisting on it.

What does bold and responsible tech leadership look like?

According to our Brands in Motion data, this kind of leadership has two key parts.

First, brands need to be accountable in how they use technology. For almost everyone, this means safeguarding customer data and ensuring privacy while still providing top-notch service. For some, it may also mean revisiting content policies and taking a firm stand against hate speech and other kinds of toxic content, something many of the large ad platforms have struggled with this past year.

Second, brands need to be, or become, companies with purpose. A majority in six of the eight markets we surveyed said they prefer to support brands that strike a balance between functionality and purpose — brands, in other words, that know what they stand for and act like it. And 74 percent of global respondents expect brands to take a stand on important issues. If an issue important to your customers becomes a topic of national conversation and you sit on the sidelines, you’d better believe that those customers will notice.

The Brands in Motion data doesn’t tell brands how to take a stand, or when. That, of course, has to come from within, and it has to feel natural to a brand’s values and audience. For example, Nike’s recent ads with Colin Kaepernick took a bold stand on a national issue —standing up against police brutality and violence — that connected with a big part of its audience. Nike acted with purpose, and it’s paying off, in sales and in invaluable PR.

To Brands in Motion 2019 and beyond

One year ago, ethics and responsibility were a much smaller part of the conversation. Now, they’re omnipresent. I’m happy to see this, and I’m happy to see brands responding in the way they are — building on trust, working toward full transparency, and above all, listening to their customers, employees and stakeholders.

All brands are in motion — along with economies, customers, competition and the culture at large. The next 12 months will certainly bring new challenges, and brands will need to be nimble to face them. Start with our white paper if you’d like to understand how to navigate your world of motion.