Taking a stand

Purpose, values, activism… more than campaign buzzwords, companies are expected to show their commitment to making a sustainable difference.

If there was ever such a thing as a status quo in the world, it is being seriously disrupted. Black swans are to be found in political uprising, technological revolution, economic uncertainty and significant environment concerns.

It is becoming harder to find consensus on what the problems are, let alone the solutions required. Society is increasingly becoming politically polarised, fracturing the media and creating echo chambers in a post truth world.

(Image: Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash)

There is clear evidence that democracies are choosing to adopt nationalist protectionism over the benefits of collective responsibility. Both the how and why of movements such as Trumpism and Brexit are causes as well as symptoms.

We are building in significant systemic issues for the younger generation so, where are they? Not in the voting booth. We are seeing a generational decline in young voter turnout, despite the blip or ‘youthquake’ created by the result of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Saunders.

Are they more or less concerned about environmental issues such as climate change or social issues of equality and justice? There is an argument that we are all becoming more aware, they’re just becoming aware earlier. They are naturally more exposed to these issues at an earlier age and are forming opinions on what needs to be done.

It’s not that they are less political, but they seem to be less engaged with formal politics, lacking trust and a sense of relevance in political institutions and parties. Nor are they less politically active, just choosing to participate in new forms of informal politics, often based around single issues, and using technology as a form of engagement.

They have inherited a world that has made them more technologically savvy and socially connected. They are starting to deal with the issues they face, using the tools that they know best.

Online activism

The young have always had a powerful role to play in social change. What has increased exponentially is technological development and their exposure to it, initially through the role of traditional media and now in their active use of social media. You can see its rise through the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War Protests, Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring.

Young activists are willing to take the lead, publicly championing causes and creating change. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and other survivors of the Marjory Stoneman shooting in Parkland are behind March for our Lives. Malala Yousafzia has become the voice of female education. Greta Thunberg is rapidly doing likewise for climate change. Eight-year old Bana Alabed used Twitter as a vehicle to highlight the horrors occurring in Aleppo, Syria.

Hashtag activism has been created and now being used globally. #MeToo, #Blacklivesmatter and #jesuischarlie are powerful examples of broadening public consciousness of issues or events. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, @aoc, the newly elected congresswoman for NY-14, at the venerable age of 29, is taking on the US establishment from the inside out and running social media rings around her opponents. She is not there to conform and become part of the fabric, “Moderates are more naive than the visionaries if they think tinkering around the edges will solve systemic problems in our democracy and economy. It’s time to rewrite the social contract, not manage decline.” She is there to create change.

Political consumerism

People increasingly want companies to take a stand on environmental and social issues. There is a multitude of studies that consistently find that approximately two thirds of consumers, rising in the younger generation, are making purchasing decisions based on a company’s approach to issues such as environmental impact or supply chain management. Sustainable products no longer sit on a separate aisle but now form a central part of a company’s portfolio strategy and they are benefiting from it. For example, Unilever’s purpose driven brands (think Lipton, Dove, Sunlight, Pukka etc) are growing 50% faster than the rest of the portfolio and providing 60% of the company’s profits.

Issues such as single use plastics or carbon miles have become mainstream concerns and consumers are voting with their wallet.

Job choices

Attracting and retaining the right people is a significant concern for companies and potential employees are changing their selection criteria. Again, a number of studies show that up to three quarters of millennials factor in a company’s social and environmental commitments before choosing where to work.

There is some debate as to whether this is prioritised over areas such as salary and career progression, but it appears that around two thirds won’t take a job in a company that doesn’t have strong sustainability credentials. Conversely, Unilever reported that around half of graduate applicants now cite their sustainability work as the primary reason for choosing them as a potential employer.

Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2017 found that 74% of respondents think business has the potential to make a positive impact on the issues that most concern them. 56% or respondents feel that businesses are fulfilling their potential. People are making career choices based on the positive impact that a company makes and are clearly expecting them to do more.


So, what do companies do about this? The time has gone where companies can claim to be amoral. They need to make a stand on the issues facing us all. Do they have the power in themselves to do the right thing? If so, they need to hold themselves to account.

Businesses cannot exist outside of, and without, society. They are deeply embedded in society. They impact on society and society impacts them; people choose whether to buy from them, work for them, invest in them, have them in their communities. They can no longer sit on the side-lines. They can no longer be a bystander. Neutrality is an abdication of responsibility. Companies need to stand for something and prove, not only their social relevance, but their social benefit. They need to demonstrate a more tangible sense to purpose beyond ‘making the world a better place’.

The contract between brands and consumers is changing. People are demanding more, not just from products but from the companies behind them. If the younger generation are taking responsibility for issues facing them, they will expect active participation from others and the participants are diverse. Broad and loose coalitions are forming around social and environmental issues. Individuals, social action groups, environmental groups, companies and fund managers are coming together around initiatives, created to solve problems ranging from the lack of female education to the use of palm oil.

There are numerous examples of companies taking a stand and where brands are aligning themselves with issues. These include; US airlines not flying separated immigrant children, Dick’s Sporting Goods’ assault weapons removal after the Parkland Shooting, Airbnb’s We Accept campaign, Nike’s commercial relationship with Colin Kaepernick, Patagonia’s overall stance and The President Stole Your Land campaign, Heineken’s Worlds Apart and P&G’s Like a Girl, to name a few.

It’s not just about creating a campaign. It’s about commitment to making a sustainable difference. Are all the examples above going that far? Only time will tell, but many companies are widening the concept of the value they create, aligned to society’s criteria of what is actually needed and valued. They are creating a purpose with substance, proactively looking to tackle the issues we face, in areas where they can make a relevant and positive impact. We need more of them.

We work with many clients to help them develop and articulate a clear sense of purpose. It’s how to unify and energise an organisation, around which everything is directed and tested. It not something that is generated externally. It comes from within. To succeed, it must connect priorities, culture, beliefs, values and behaviours. You can’t just say it, you truly need to do it. Increasingly, you will be judged on it.

Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson is global head of offer for Superunion, a global brand agency. Previously, he was chief executive of Addison Group, a leading corporate communication and branding consultancy. Alongside his network role, he works with a range of international clients to develop a more holistic approach to branding and communications, helping them both to successfully differentiate themselves and positively engage the audiences who are critical to their success.