Corporate brands must lead the charge on social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility only succeeds when it comes from the top down.

As America faces a moment of reckoning, corporate brands are being put under the microscope like never before.

Consumers increasingly buy products that align with their values, and corporate brands, once relegated to the backdrop, are viewing their brand portfolios in a new light. From Mars to PepsiCo, we are finally seeing parent brands take action to become more socially responsible.

But addressing the product portfolio is only the first step. Corporate brands must now reckon with what Larry Fink and the Business Roundtable have been saying for years: stakeholder value supersedes shareholder value.

Corporate purpose matters

Brands that want to be known as socially conscious have to be honest in their communications about it. Corporations that own those brands can help by defining their overall purpose to serve as a guidebook to how individual brands should approach sensitive topics.

Today, anything and everything a brand does must be authentic and credible. When brands enter conversations they don’t belong in, consumers promptly and happily call them out on social media. And employees have even shown willingness to whistleblow when necessary.

Facebook, for example, has received scrutiny both internally and from its users because its stated purpose to “bring the world closer together” does not gel with the divisive and inflammatory content on its platform. That inconsistency makes it hard for Facebook to meaningfully respond to cultural situations.

Live your values

Employees today have higher expectations of their employers and demand a clear position on the issues that matter to them.

Transparency in the decision-making process keeps stakeholders in the loop. When decisions are made behind closed doors at the corporate level, people get suspicious.

When business behavior doesn’t match brand values, the company risks being publicly called out. We see this time and again with organizations that don’t practice what they preach internally.

Start from the top

Corporate brands have proven it’s possible to commit to a purpose and actively engage in positive change from the corporate level.

P&G tackled racial bias internally and within its product portfolio long before the current wave of social unrest, and its rapid response to the Black Lives Matter movement aligns with this commitment. Beyond just advertising in support of the movement, P&G launched Take on Race, an initiative to educate consumers about systemic racism in the U.S.

Unilever has lived out its commitment to sustainability, which has served as a guiding light for both corporate and brand-level decisions. The company’s commitment to remove fossil fuels from its cleaning products by 2030 will impact leading brands such as Persil and Domestos.

Purpose thrives when it starts from the top-down. With the correct steer, companies can move quickly to commit to social responsibility.

Ross Clugston is executive creative director and Nora Bradshaw is a strategy director at Superunion. 

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