This is the time when pundits come forth with their prognostications for what will happen in the new year. Of course, with so much in flux, no one really knows what the heck is going to happen. So I've decided to adopt hope as our strategy and list five things I hope to see happen in the world of corporate responsibility and brands in 2019.
Brands will step off the political stage as government starts acting sane again
Let's hope that the recent trend toward brands taking a stand on politics fades, as a two-party Congress restores some semblance of balance to our political landscape. Brands were trying to fill a vacuum here, playing the role of a loyal opposition at a time when the public had nowhere else to turn. It's not something they're necessarily cut out for, as we've seen in numerous gaffes. Even when the ads are done well, the profit motive tends to undermine the purity of the message. Was Nike's campaign with Colin Kaepernick driven by brand values or by brand opportunism? The answer is probably both, as required for a publicly held company. Which is why companies should not overstay their moment on the political stage.
Pushed by employees, companies will begin formally reporting on formerly secret things
Bridging incongruities between a company's stated values and its behind-the-scenes behavior will be big in 2019, as transparency reaches deeper into organizations. Warren Buffett's insight that "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out" could well explain the headlines of 2018, as companies were skewered by gaps between their public values and private behavior. Often employees are leading the charge toward accountability, as we've seen with recent protests at Amazon and Microsoft. Smart companies will get out in front of this wave by proactively reporting on activities such as lobbying, political contributions, harassment policies and government contracts. Why? Because there is no behind-the-scenes anymore.
Corporate responsibility metrics will standardize and spread to brand packaging
If you're managing your company's reporting these days, the number of reporting systems can make it feel a bit like you're being nibbled to death by ducks. In addition to GRI, we now have SDGs, ESG and CDP, not to mention numerous SRI indexes, each with slightly different criteria. If that acronym soup makes no sense to you, well that's part of the problem. (Here's the translation: Global Reporting Initiative; Sustainable Development Goals; Environmental, Social, Governance; Carbon Disclosure Project; Socially Responsible Investing.)
Talking about corporate responsibility has gotten increasingly complex and opaque at a time when we need to simplify and connect. We see hope of a simplicity breakthrough in 2019 as investors push for more standardized metrics to underpin the rise of sustainable investing. Consumer demand for brands that have a baked-in approach to sustainability and social impact will pull these simplified metrics onto packaging in 2019—and begin showing up in Amazon ratings.
ExxonMobil will buy Tesla and announce a goal to end carbon-based transportation by 2030
Probably dreaming here, but global warming is no longer an issue to be abstracted and "managed" by carbon footprint policies. It's here, it's real, and it's starting to wreck our homes. People want big, bold solutions from government and business. The Green New Deal being discussed by Congress is one example, but we hope business will join the march toward big ideas.
The brave new frontier of corporate responsibility in 2019 will be … paying taxes
Long in the background, company tax policies will increasingly enter the spotlight next year. We're already seeing enlightened first movers such as Salesforce and Patagonia position their taxes in the context of corporate responsibility. Drivers behind this trend are pushback at the windfalls corporations received from the most recent U.S. tax legislation, coupled with the growing realization that companies need to step up in broader ways than their individual consumer responsbility programs. As Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff noted in his New York Times op-ed titled "The Social Responsibility of Business": "Yes, we are a business that supports a tax on our business—because we are a part of our community and our community is in crisis."
That's my humble list for 2019. What headlines are you hoping for next year?
Brian Lanahan is director of strategy for AHA, a Vancouver, Washington–based marketing services agency that specializes in corporate responsibility and brand purpose campaigns and initiatives.