Consumers Are Watching You

Ignore the Role of the Consumer in Corporate Governance at Your Own Risk

By Published on .

The front-runners in the race for the U.S. presidency -- on both sides of the aisle -- talk a lot about corporate power and specifically about reining in various facets of that power. John McCain rails against "crony capitalism." Hillary Clinton wants power returned to the unions, while Barack Obama speaks of passing the "strongest lobbying reform in history."
Whole Foods Market is an example of a brand that has been built on a clearly articulated set of values.
Whole Foods Market is an example of a brand that has been built on a clearly articulated set of values. Credit: Donna McWilliam
In their view, corporate behavior can be self-regulated, imposed by government mandate or encouraged by government incentives. The role of the consumer in corporate governance is largely ignored.

That's a mistake. Today's CMO needs to recognize both the extent to which consumers have gained power over the past decade and the broader social role corporations are being asked to play. Both of these shifts have significant implications for corporations and corporate branding -- and, as a direct result, corporate profits.

New research from Euro RSCG Worldwide conducted in the U.S., the U.K. and France points to a dramatic change in the relationship between corporations and their consumer stakeholders. Consumers are at once more skeptical of big businesses and more demanding of them. And even as corporations have grown larger, more global and more powerful, they have become more vulnerable to public opinion and more aware of the penalties to be paid for any missteps.

Given this new reality, CMOs must consider the following:


Ordinary people are making your business their business as democratized media and information have made corporations more accessible -- and accountable. Anyone with internet access can find out just about anything they want about your company online, a platform that also allows consumers to "talk back" to big business through blogs, message boards, product reviews and the like. More than one-third of survey respondents in the U.S. and U.K. and more than half in France indicated they had actively sought out information about a company's reputation or ethics in the few months prior to the study. Even larger proportions (U.S., 80%; U.K., 78%; France, 92%) said it's important for corporations to maintain an open dialogue with consumers. CMOs need to be actively engaged in those conversations.


More than seven in 10 American and British respondents and eight in 10 French said businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. In some ways, that's astonishing. It's perhaps less surprising when one takes into account the perceived failures of government in recent years. In the U.S., 87% of people polled by Cone in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina expected corporations to play a major role in rebuilding affected areas. As governments prove themselves unwilling or unable to protect their citizenship, corporations increasingly are expected to pick up the slack.

Corporations should start at home. A majority of those surveyed want big corporations to share more of their profits with employees, and nearly as many in each market want companies to do more to respect employees' rights and needs. Whole Foods Market is one of the leaders in this area, capping executive salaries at 16 times the average pay of all full-time workers (compared with an average U.S. CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 282-to-1), and distributing more than 90% of its stock options to employees who are not executive officers.


George Orwell would hardly recognize today's business environment. For all the fears of big business tracking consumer movements with digital cookies and radio-frequency-identification tags, the truth is that consumers are keeping equally close (if not closer) tabs on corporations.

A majority of respondents in the U.K. and France and nearly two-thirds of Americans are paying closer attention to corporations' conduct and images. And large majorities (eight in 10 Americans and French and nearly seven in 10 British) believe they have a responsibility to censure unethical companies by avoiding their products. CMOs need to be mindful of the fact that their companies are now operating in a fishbowl -- and consumers aren't going to be shy about tapping on the glass.


Consumers in the three markets surveyed have made it clear: Business can no longer be just about profit. More than eight in 10 respondents said it's important for a company to stand for something other than profitability.

Look at the most successful brands that have emerged in recent decades and you'll find that most of them have been built on a strong and clearly articulated set of beliefs and values. In the space of a decade, Google went from a college research project to a company with a brand value estimated at more than $17 billion, all while seeking to live by its credos of "Don't be evil" and "Work should be challenging, and the challenge should be fun." Whole Foods Market has built its brand on a simple philosophy of "Whole foods, whole people, whole planet" -- and in doing so has managed to become the world's fastest-growing retailer.

Each company has turned strong beliefs into a winning proposition. And those core beliefs are the cornerstones of their marketing programs.

These companies don't stand out just because they are values-centered; they stand out because they are creating new ways of doing business. Innovation and vision are both considered essential components of good business in each of the markets surveyed. That makes sense at a time when consumers expect corporations to operate to benefit society at large, not just line the pockets of executives and shareholders. As marketers, of course, our ultimate goal is to accomplish both.
Andrew Benett is global chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide and co-president of Euro RSCG New York.
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