Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin
Along with about 26 million other people, I spent the other Sunday night doing my usual Sunday-evening chores — getting ready for work, making dinner, catching up on reading — while keeping one eye on the Grammys. Like everyone else, I was dazzled by Adele and Beyoncé; I quasi-danced along with A Tribe Called Quest (no big jumps due to my recent knee surgery!), and I even got a bit misty-eyed during the Prince tribute.
For once, I wasn’t thinking about this blog series — until I started to wander away from the TV during a commercial break and heard a familiar tune: Sam Cooke’s great “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I sat back down. Famous faces — basketball player Kevin Durant, tennis legend Serena Williams, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, gymnast Gabby Douglas — flickered across the screen, all beautifully shot in black and white. “The ball should bounce the same for everyone,” the narrator said. “Opportunity should not discriminate.” At the end of the ad, LeBron James turned to the camera and said: “We can be equals everywhere.” Then, on the screen, the tagline: “Equality has no boundaries.”
It was an ad for Nike, but it was selling much more than sneakers. It’s part of the company’s new EQUALITY campaign: a movement that’s all about using (Nike says) “the power of sport to inspire people to take action in their communities.”
And the company isn’t just talking — it’s doing. On Martin Luther King Day, it announced a really important pair of partnerships: one with a youth-mentoring organization here in the U.S. and one with an international group that’s dedicated to using sports to help develop youth leaders. In all, Nike will give $5 million to these and other organizations this year. It’s not just talking about a commitment to equality in the abstract; it’s letting that commitment drive its work.
Nike’s ad reminded me of another I’d seen and loved recently: a GE spot that imagines a world in which physicist and MIT professor Millie Dresselhaus is as famous as LeBron. Little girls buy “Millie” dolls and wear “Millie” wigs for Halloween. Strangers clamor to take selfies with her on the street. She smiles from the cover of glossy magazines and lectures to standing-ovation crowds. “What if we treated great female scientists like they were stars?” the ad asks.
Like the Nike ad, this one isn’t just using a heart-tugging story to sell a product. It’s proof of a genuine commitment to change. In fact, GE has just unveiled a campaign to hire 20,000 women for technical jobs by 2020 — a real, concrete step toward addressing the pervasive gender imbalance in STEM fields. It’s not just thinking about what a company can do to make the world a better place, it’s doing it.
It’s easy to see why some people will question brands that take a strong point of view on social issues, but to me it’s inspiring when it’s done well. Just in the past month or so, we have seen many brands speak out on issues that matter to them — and like Nike and GE, they’re not just talking. They’re acting in defense of their values. Google launched a fund that will donate up to $4 million to organizations that aid immigrants and refugees. Airbnb offered free temporary housing to refugees, disaster survivors and relief workers who need it; in fact, it’s pledged short-term housing for 100,000 people over the next five years. Postmates announced that it would match employee donations to the ACLU and the International Refugee Assistance Project. These companies are making it clear what they stand for and why.
Yes, we’re in a business where words REALLY matter, but we can’t just talk — we have to DO. In fact, when I think about what it means for WE to be a purpose-driven company, I come back again and again to that old cliché: Actions speak louder than words. It’s pretty easy, albeit expensive, for a company to “perform” its values by splashing them across your TV screen during the Super Bowl; what’s not so easy is to back up that performance with a real commitment to change. That’s what Nike did, and it’s what GE did. It’s what Google, Airbnb, Postmates, and lots of other tech companies in particular are doing.
And though not all of us have the scalability of Nike or Google or GE, we too can always be thinking about how we can do our share — and more. It’s just what we counsel brands to do every day: Find your line in the sand; clearly communicate your values to your employees and customers; and make it plain, through actions and words, what you believe in and why. Don’t just talk; do your share.