For decades, b-to-b brands have developed massive brand campaigns to paint their visions of a future based on technological innovation. GE’s award-winning “Imagination at Work” campaign, launched in 2003 with an initial budget of $100 million, successfully positioned the company as an innovator beyond lighting and appliances. Five years later, IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign highlighted how computing advances could affect interconnected systems. Big Blue even enjoyed a star turn on TV in 2011 when its Watson supercomputer was a winning contestant on “Jeopardy!”
These days, that’s not enough. Shareholders, customers and employees have come to expect more than innovative products and technologies. Calls for action, calls for reflection, calls for change—that’s how Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella referred to the growing expectation for companies to address important global issues such as climate change, voting rights, human rights, income inequality and racial injustice. Stakeholders are demanding that brands innovate themselves and use their position and economic power to create a better and more equitable society.
To earn the loyalty of buyers, the support of investors, and to attract/retain top talent—especially Millennials and Gen Z—companies need to take a stand and demonstrate actions toward improving society. Here are three important strategies:
Develop a vision that aligns purpose and product
Corporate response to this shift has been well-intentioned but sometimes misguided. Ever since the notion of a “social contract” between business and society was introduced by the Committee for Economic Development in the 1970s, companies have allocated money and people to corporate social responsibility initiatives. For years, these efforts and the communications around them had separate teams, separate budgets and separate aims—social responsibility was a distinct aspect of the brand—a walled garden—rather than a defining principle. Today, when it comes to truly defining a brand, corporate social responsibility and brand reputation are one.
Developing a vision for the future—in which the things they do or produce, and the way they operate, make the world a better place—enables companies to show stakeholders how they are effecting change in practical and aspirational ways. It works best if there’s a credible, authentic connection between this purpose-led approach and the company’s products and services.
Invest responsibly in employees, communities and innovation
Responsible action must be more than ethical behavior. Treating employees fairly, hiring diverse teams, fixing broken compensation systems and doing right by their community are table stakes now. Companies must look beyond their workplace and beyond their immediate community to produce meaningful change.
Who’s winning? The brands that top the lists of responsible companies tend to be those with CSR investments that are directly related to what they do as companies. Lockheed Martin’s broad set of programs aimed at training the next generation of STEM engineers is good for society and genuine because it’s directly relevant to its business. Cisco’s “Bridge to Possible” is a commitment to connecting billions of us together, which corresponds authentically with its core technology.
Naturally, the bigger the brand, the deeper the pockets, the greater the expectation that it will spend money to effect consequential change. Big investments in authentic and sincere initiatives whose effects can be measured can also be a real source of differentiation that translates into revenue and reputational growth. They can even ignite a sense of pride and purpose among employees once a team knows its contributions at work support societal progress. Major League Baseball’s decision to pull its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to new, restrictive Georgia voting laws was designed to make a statement in the market—and to its internal team.
But it doesn’t stop inside the walls. Companies have massive influence beyond the products and services they sell, so they must also look at their supply chains, too. They can hold suppliers accountable not only for complying with quality standards but also for supporting just ways for our society to be better on issues related to social justice and sustainability. Bank of America, for example, recently announced it would raise its minimum hourly wage to $25, and insists its contractors pay at least $15.
Create a purposeful approach to stakeholder communication
Taking responsible action is what differentiates a brand; a purposeful approach to telling that story is what bolsters the brand’s reputation. Grand brand campaigns that deliver a technology-oriented vision of the future, with side campaigns focused on corporate giving and community initiatives, won’t do the job today. Instead, b-to-b marketers need a single campaign that integrates all of them into a powerful narrative about the brand. CSR and brand should be as tightly intertwined as the strands in our genes that define us as individuals.
To that end, it starts with brand purpose. Why does the company matter in our world? The best purpose statements are those that inform the company’s CSR initiatives, employee value proposition, innovation investments business strategy—all of which can be brought to life through effective brand storytelling and communications.
At highly regarded companies such as Salesforce and Cisco, CSR strategy, corporate strategy and brand reputation strategy seem blended and fused—and results are tracked. That requires a partnership of the CEO and CMO, with the CEO guiding the strategic direction and investments for the company, while the CMO ensures investments manifest themselves in the company’s value propositions and multi-stakeholder communications—where both are equally committed to the company’s prescribed purpose.
Innovation is key. And, as always, has a part to play in creating a brand vision that encompasses and embraces a better life for us all. But new approaches that exist only for the sake of innovation and fail to empower people will fail a brand.
Responsible action and purposeful communication can help put a brand atop any list. But it’s more than that. The real benefit of creating a brand with a purpose is building a better company: attracting and keeping talent, bolstering culture, creating new opportunities, earning new customers and increasing valuation. Most importantly, creating a business that builds a better world will create a better world in which to do business.