You’ve been working with brand leaders for decades on their social impact and how they interface with the communities in which their customers live and work. What has changed in recent years –in terms of how leaders think about purpose?
Going back a bit further, in the last 30 years, we’ve seen a remarkable shift as CSR has gone from being a silo within an organization – often a list of regulations to follow or writing a big check to a community nonprofit – to a critical aspect of the business. Today’s CSR is much more strategic – it’s integrated into the business. According to PwC, 64 percent of CEOs say CSR is core to their business rather than being a standalone effort.
But there's another shift that's taken place more recently: companies are not just being more strategic about corporate social impact, but are taking on the role of ACTIVISTS themselves. Consumers and employees now expect companies to be vocal and to protect the rights of our people and our planet. CEOs are the voices of companies and can no longer remain neutral and silent as our world grapples with serious challenges. For example, tech CEOs are standing up to Trump's immigration ban, leaders like Kenneth Frazier of Merck pulled out of Trump's Business Council after Charlottesville, and companies stepped up for Marriage Equality early on.
We’re also seeing brands leverage their commitment to bolster sales. According to Cone, 84% of consumers say they seek out responsible products whenever possible and 77% of Americans feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven companies. And according to Nielsen, 55% of global online consumers will pay more for products from companies that are committed to social and environmental impact and 67% of all employees prefer to work for a socially responsible company. Look at companies like Warby Parker, Eileen Fisher, Bombas, and Patagonia – they prove the value of incorporating activism into an authentic part of your company’s culture and image.
"Companies are not just being more strategic about corporate social impact, but are taking on the role of ACTIVISTS themselves."
Have you seen a shift in a greater need for companies to focus on social impact given our current climate?
Absolutely. Given the challenges we face now and in the months ahead, we need companies to go all-in on social impact. Not every company is able to help right now, but those who CAN must step up – consumers and employees are watching. I've been speaking with leaders from companies like HP, Salesforce, UPS, Facebook, Sesame Street, Nextdoor and more on our McPherson Memo Live Impact Chats and I'm truly inspired by the ways these and other companies are stepping up to use their resources to address the crisis.
People are paying attention to how companies are treating employees – layoffs and furloughs might be the unfortunate reality for many companies, but what type of support are you offering for the employees who you have to let go? Airbnb was a real standout here, offering employees 14 weeks of severance, no matter how long they've been at the company, and a full year of insurance coverage through Cobra. If you have employees who need to come into work, how are you ensuring their safety? Target stood out by not only quickly pivoting to drive-up and order pickup services to protect employees and customers, but by extending benefits for associates and their families.
"Given the challenges we face now and in the months ahead, we need companies to go all-in on social impact."
How will you know when it's time to go back to 'normal' brand messaging? Is that even realistic?
As people are dealing with the stress of quarantine, potentially losing loved ones, and coping with mass unemployment, it's critical that brands be sensitive and not pretend we're living in a normal world right now. But that doesn't mean that companies can't also talk about their products or prioritize social impact issues that aren't directly related to COVID. For example, on April 20, 2020, Ben & Jerry's ran a very well received and important campaign focused on racial justice within the fledgling Cannabis industry. But it’s important for brands to be cognizant of their customers’ and employees’ timelines and refrain from prematurely moving on.
"It's critical that brands be sensitive and not pretend we're living in a normal world right now."
How have you attempted to measure the impact of mission?
There are many different ways to measure social impact, and it all starts with your goals. Are you trying to raise money? To raise awareness? To educate people?
Regardless, the gold standard here is to be able to measure outcomes whether that be the number of people your programs have reached, how many of your company’s employees and customers have donated to a particular cause, or how many hours your employees have volunteered. For example, our program helped train 100 low-income young people in technology skills and 97 of them then were hired at tech companies. Every impact program is different, but you should be thinking about how you'll measure success from the start.
"Every impact program is different, but you should be thinking about how you'll measure success from the start."
"A perfectly crafted advertisement with a clear social impact message is really only effective if it’s backed up by actions."
How can brands be authentic with their messages without being exploitive?
The less you can make it about your brand and the more you can make it about the people and communities you’re supporting, the better off you’ll look to the consumer. A perfectly crafted advertisement with a clear social impact message is really only effective if it’s backed up by actions – is the company merely spending millions on a campaign or are they actually diving headfirst into solving the problem?
Mauricio Galvan, the former creative director at Anomaly’s “Back to School Essentials” spot by Sandy Hook Promise and BBDO New York really resonated with me. The gun-control conversation has reached a point of urgency, and at the same time, the absurdity of the arguments of those who oppose it has reached a new peak. It's crazy to think that as surreal as this spot might be, it's awfully close to the new reality we're living in. I think the spot does a great job of pointing out warning signs that can lead to shooting as well as waking up lawmakers opposed to gun-control laws.
And I was also really impressed by Secret’s support of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, not just through their powerful ads featuring women and girls on the field, but their commitment to standing behind the cause by donating $529,000-$23,000 for each of the 23 players—to address the gender pay gap. And Microsoft’s recent ad showing how mothers are trying to cope with working while homeschooling was priceless.