Brands can close the Thunberg/Trump divide

Brands can help society cross seemingly unbridgeable chasms, says Melissa Waggener Zorkin, global CEO and founder, WE.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The other day, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, two of the most polarizing people in the world almost shared a stage. First came the young climate activist (and Time magazine’s Person of the Year) Greta Thunberg, who accused world leaders of doing "pretty much nothing" to address rising carbon emissions in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that the cost of inaction will be catastrophe.

A few hours later, as if to prove Thunberg’s point, President Donald Trump denounced people who believe in human-caused climate change: "heirs," he said, "of yesterday's foolish fortune tellers." It seems no one told him the event’s theme was "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World," emphasis mine.

There’s no middle ground here. In fact, it feels like there’s really no middle ground anywhere. On the contrary, it feels like we are always raging at someone else on the other side of an unbridgeable chasm.

It feels like we’re about to snap apart, if we haven’t already.

But there is good news: Brands have a big role to play in bringing us back together. I know many consumers have what might be called "issue fatigue." And they are right to object when brands just add to the noise, capitalizing on a movement or a moment without conviction. Yet when brands engage with integrity and authenticity on issues that matter to them, consumers show their support.

In other words, consumers want brands to show their values — not just talk about them. For example, for the past two years, in our Brands in Motion study, three-quarters of respondents told us they expect brands to take a stand on important issues—as long as they do so with authentic purpose. When they do, our study shows brands can create more stability in our unstable world.

But authenticity is the key. Without it, social-media justice will be swift and merciless. (Shall we revisit Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi debacle?)

What does all this mean?

A brand’s values must be meaningful to its stakeholders: shareholders, employees, and customers. Otherwise, they are just jumping on the bandwagon.

Values do not mean purpose washing. Whether it’s green washing or pink washing or rainbow washing, customers will call you on it, but probably not before your employees do.

Brands must be willing to act on their values, but only after they ensure those actions are true to who they are. That’s what living your purpose looks like.

For example: Microsoft recently announced they’re going carbon negative by 2030. Starbucks has done the same. Levi Strauss has taken powerful stands on issues including gun control and getting out the vote. And last summer, Business Roundtable changed its Principles of Corporate Governance to balance equal commitments to purpose and profit.

The moral of the story? Consumers don’t want brands to moralize or preach to them. And they certainly don’t want them to pretend to care when they don’t. They do want them to define their values clearly and act on those convictions. Show, don’t tell.

Might there be backlash? Sure. But focus instead on who you might inspire, who will embrace your purpose, who will take it to the next level and use it to build a brighter future.

There’s a strong business case for operating with purpose. But isn’t doing the right thing reason enough?

Melissa Waggener Zorkin is the global CEO and founder of WE.

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