Two young people play with the Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller

Can Brands Be the Change We Crave?

Last month, the Business Roundtable (BRT) issued a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” that is, at first glance, pretty remarkable. For decades, versions of this same document have made the argument that corporations exist to make money for shareholders — full stop. But this year, the focus of the argument shifted from shareholders to stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, even “the communities in which we work.” “Each of our stakeholders is essential,” the statement concluded. “We commit to deliver value to all of them.”

As global CEO and founder of a purpose-driven company who’s counseled countless brand leaders, visionaries and communications pros about the importance of leading with values, I’m very glad to see this perspective shift. But what I’m most interested in is witnessing how this shift shows up in the ways brands operate, and the measurable positive social impact this will inspire.

Although the implications are extremely encouraging — 181 CEOs of some of the world’s marquee brands signed the BRT’s statement — the bottom line is that people demand change. According to our soon-to-be-released Brands in Motion study, now in its third year, today’s consumers told us they expect brands to SHOW not just say what they think stakeholders want to hear while they carry on with shareholders’ business as usual.

Our findings show consumers are turning up the pressure for brands to deliver positive social impact WHILE delivering their products and services — to act on behalf of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Consumers still want brands to deliver exceptional products and services, of course. They also want them to change the world for the better WHILE they are building their businesses, all along the way.

In other words: Consumers want ACTION, not just statements or good intentions. If brands are to succeed in this new world, they’ve got to buckle up and get moving.


Brands that make it, can't fake it.

When I consider my favorite childhood brands such as Rossignol, Levi’s and Cheetos (don’t judge!), I think about how much my loyalty has shifted to brands that sync with my values as well as my tastes. Levi’s, I’m glad to report, has made the cut for me, thanks to its genuine commitment to sustainability — think cutting-edge recycled and recyclable fabrics and clothes that hold up so well consumers will actually buy fewer of them. (This means less waste in landfills; no disposable “fast fashion” here!) A 150-year-old brand that acts with authentic purpose and seizes its ability to impact issues on a local and global scale, while still making the best jeans out there? I’m proud to call myself a longtime fan.

It’s predicted that in 30 years, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. This frightening forecast inspired Adidas to team up with environmental organization Parley for the Oceans to manufacture sneakers from recycled plastic collected from beaches. Adidas reports its partnership has already prevented nearly 3,000 tons of plastic from reaching the oceans. And this year alone it expects to make 11 million pairs of shoes with recycled beach plastic, doubling last year’s efforts, while delivering the same performance and comfort its customers love. I love my pair of ocean blue runners, by the way.

Likewise, just this month, we saw Marriott pledge to eliminate plastic toiletry bottles throughout its expansive hotel chain, joining competitors InterContinental Hotels Group (which owns the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza chains) and Walt Disney Co. that stopped using unrecyclable containers at resorts and on cruise ships last year. Hyatt, too, is currently testing bulk soaps and shampoos at some locations.

Even — perhaps especially — in a crisis, brands can take deliberate action to show how seriously they take the needs of their customers, employees and communities. For example, when a brand ends up in the crosshairs of a culture war on social media, controlling the message by amplifying purpose must be swift. In India last month, the popular food delivery app Zomato found itself in a perfect storm of customer expectations, cultural clashes, and religious intolerance when a Hindu customer refused to accept food delivered by a Muslim delivery person. The customer shared his experience on Twitter, and it launched a nationwide discussion about tolerance. Zomato stayed true to their values by messaging in response, ‘food is our only religion,’ a tactic that received praise from their loyal customers (and subsequent right-wing shame.) Zomato navigated this moment by staying true to their brand values — informing their audiences that uniting people through a shared love of conveniently delivered food is their North Star. It’s showing the world that the bottom-line matters, but people matter more.


Be better. Be bold. Be real.

Ultimately, our research shows that companies have to walk the walk: They need to act on the values they share with their customers. They also need to talk the talk: They need to be able to tell the story of those values; to explain why they matter; and to persuade, encourage and INSPIRE where it’s necessary. That’s where we come in.

As stakeholders become more engaged and informed, their expectations are only going to rise. That means the BRT statement is a great start — but it’s just the beginning. Now, we must do the hard work: Channel that momentum, hold ourselves accountable and act to create a brighter future for all.

September 12, 2019