Capitalism is either broken or the greatest development in modern history

Big debates among the Davoisie at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this week centered on businesses and brands that finally seem primed to turn endless talk into real action.

P&G's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Photo credit: Steve Barrett)
P&G's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Photo credit: Steve Barrett)

"Capitalism is the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind," said JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to CNBC during a wide-ranging interview at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

The mood of delegates such as Dimon and the other Davoisie in Switzerland was much more bullish this year compared to 2019’s gathering, when the assembled masses seemed convinced a global recession lay just around the corner.

Coming off JPMorgan’s most profitable year ever, Dimon contended that "the consumer is doing fine, and 70% of gross domestic product is driven by consumers."

Echoing President Donald Trump’s stump speech to a packed congress hall on Tuesday, Dimon noted that compensation, wages and jobs are all up, and that millions of people have come back into the workforce.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, however, a different narrative about capitalism was being promulgated.

At Edelman’s 20th annual Trust Barometer launch, CEO Richard Edelman sounded the alarm when he revealed this year’s data showed three out of four people say the system doesn’t work and is unfair — with 56% of respondents saying capitalism as it is currently conceived is "a force for bad in the world." This rises to 70% in places such as France.

Edelman described the survey of more than 34,000 people in 28 markets as depicting "the largest ever mass class divide," started in the U.S., U.K. and France, which has led to serious upheavals.

"People are foreshadowing what’s going to happen in the next decade," he said. "They’re afraid — 83% think they’re going to lose their jobs because of the gig economy, automation and outsourcing." He said respondents in every developed country believe their income will decline in the next five years.

However, the big narrative of the Davos week definitely revolved around climate change, with high-profile contributions by 17-year-old climate warrior Greta Thunberg including listening in the audience to Trump’s speech, appearing on panels with CEOs of major global businesses such as Allianz and interacting with British heir to the throne Prince Charles.

But both Dimon and Edelman majored on the more personal issues directly impacting people’s lives.

"There are people who have been left behind and wages need to go up at the lower end," conceded Dimon to CNBC. "The Business Roundtable [of which Dimon has just passed on chair duties to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon] is in favor of using tax credits to get more money into the hands of those who don’t have a living wage."

Edelman described a "scared" developed world where three out of four people are losing their place in society and are frightened of being embarrassed. They’re more concerned with whether they’ll have a job in five years, how they can retrain for a technology-dominated future and how they can provide healthcare for themselves and their families.

They want business to help them get ahead and compete in the next generation. "'Don’t discard me and leave me by the side,'" is their plea, said Edelman, "'I want to be competitive and relevant — I want to be a person, don’t make me a number.'"

In a panel discussion at the Trust Barometer launch, Microsoft president Brad Smith noted: "Every period of rapid technological change tends to exacerbate income inequality and saps confidence in people who don’t think they’ll have the skills to be successful in the next era. Ultimately, democracies correct. You see rises in populism and that’s an indicator a political correction is coming."

It was noteworthy that concern about climate change only came 11th on respondents’ lists of priorities according to the Trust Barometer. And business leaders with a fierce devotion to the primacy of free enterprise seem more prepared to take a back seat when it comes to dealing with the massive challenges of climate change.

"Freedom and free enterprise are inextricably linked," said Dimon. "Free enterprise is the pursuit of happiness. Once you have governments taking control of businesses it ends up in corruption."

However, on climate change, his tone shifted: "You can yell all you want at private enterprise, but you need good government policy — that’s the only thing that will solve this thing globally. We need a carbon tax, a carbon dividend that doesn’t get sent to Washington, but rather gets sent [directly] to the people."

And Microsoft’s Smith said: "Will democracy be saved by people who are not elected by the public? I doubt it. The world’s democracies need to be led by people the public elects, the rest of us need to do our part."

His compelling metaphor was that business is "aspiring to get the academy award for best supporting actor, not the leading actor prize."

Dimon and Smith’s perspectives slightly differed from those in BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s annual letter, released the week before Davos, which definitely prioritized climate change. It positioned the issue as a serious investment risk and introduced a number of measures placing sustainability at the center of BlackRock’s approach.

One thing’s for sure, Davos provides a fantastic opportunity for business and government leaders to get together and tackle these big issues, alongside nonprofits. There’s a much more open perspective in Davos, perhaps stimulated by the refreshing mountain air.

It's also a rare chance for senior media executives and journalists to get together in a convivial manner in one place - many PR pros referenced this as another upside oif the Davos experience.

A CEO or government leader can do more business and hang out with more people in three days in Davos than they could in nine months of separate meetings. It’s a unique convening environment that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

This is the counterargument to those who point to the squadrons of private jets parked up in the secretive local airport and fleets of black limos to ferry these notables around Davos. Yes, the optics are egregious, but this meeting facilitates interactions that would require a far larger carbon footprint were they all conducted separately in many different locations around the globe.

There also seems to be a more partnership-oriented approach on display in Davos. Many top CPG CEOs got together in Davos to push the ball forward in relation to plastics and recycling, and there was a general feeling during the week that the time for talking on issues such as sustainability and purpose had ended — it is now time for real action. Even Coke and Pepsi are talking to each other these days.

Business needs to take a stand, and the many communications and PR executives in situ in Davos can play crucial roles in making things happen.

As Edelman noted: "Business is competent, it gets things done, much more than governments."

He believes business must be the catalyst for change — 92% of Trust Barometer respondents said they want CEOs to speak up and talk about issues of the day such as diversity, sustainability and use of data — up from 70% last year.

At a GLAAD event on Thursday, attendees got a glimpse of interesting new research about the impact of using gay, lesbian and transgender characters in advertising and marketing. CEO Sarah Kate Ellis previewed some very positive developments in this area.

Speaking at the same event, Procter & Gamble chief brand officer Marc Pritchard doubled down on his company’s commitment to pushing the envelope on issues such as this, even in the face of backlash from some quarters. He played last year's ad that shows a father helping his transgender son to shave for the first time.

You could tell Pritchard meant it. There were tears and laughter in the air in equal amounts, and he stuck around for some time afterward to interact with the audience. This was no hi and bye.

The Trust Barometer showed employees want brands to speak up. Three out of four respondents will only stay with a company if they feel valued and valuable and part of something that’s good for society.

However, there is some nuance in which issues consumers will get behind business supporting, according to the inaugural PRWeek/Morning Consult Consumer Purpose Survey released on Tuesday. Consumers are most likely to support companies discussing equal pay (74%), healthcare access (71%) and the environment (70%).

Two out of three Trust Barometer respondents base buying decisions on beliefs and brand democracy is the new normal. Brands need to take a stand, align themselves with customers and advocate with them — business needs to step into the void and lead.

A high-level panel discussion convened by PRWeek on Wednesday morning in partnership with Google and Edelman dug deep into these trends at Davos and the way communicators and marketers play an integral role in naviagting their companies and organisations through the new realities and making sure they don't go off piste.

Find out what Citi's Jen Lowney, P&G's Craig Buchholtz, Credit Suisse's Francesca Krist, Levi's Kelly McGinnis, HPE CMO Jim Jackson, Nielsen's Laura Nelson, Johnson Controls' Fraser Engerman, Edelman's Justin Blake and Morning Consult's Kyle Dropp thought when our writeup goes live soon.

Despite the undoubted challenges facing business and the world, findings such as these left me departing Davos in a surprisingly upbeat frame of mind. And the good thing for PR pros is that these outcomes are only going to come to fruition if communications is positioned squarely at the heart of the process.

It's time for action.

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