Survival of the kindest: Why doing good is good for doing business

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By Brian Leadbetter

If Queen Elizabeth II described 1992 as an annus horribilis, I’m not quite sure what descriptor would be appropriate for 2020. With an incredibly divisive and polarizing US election just behind us (almost), and the second wave of COVID-19 engulfing the better part of our planet, it’s just a bit rich for me to say, “Hey everyone, doing good is the best,” isn’t it? I would agree, at least in part.

In a year where a Tik Tok long board-riding, Ocean Spray Cranberry cocktail-drinking, Fleetwood Mac Dreams-playing Nathon Apodaca is the pinnacle of societal goodness, should we collectively be a bit worried? I say no. If anything, this viral moment for Ocean Spray and for Fleetwood Mac (that any large company would absolutely trip over themselves for) shows my point explicitly – that doing good is good for business.

When Ocean Spray executives heard the back story of Nathon’s viral Tik Tok moment – that his truck with 330,000 miles on it broke down on his way to work, thus prompting the longboard sojourn – they acted by buying him a brand-new Nissan pick complete with a cornucopia of Ocean Spray juices.

I appreciate that Ocean Spray’s motives may not be entirely altruistic here – they sold a lot more juice – but they also understood that doing good is good for business.

As we’re now in an era that is more likely to be defined by a higher frequency of historically significant ‘Black Swan’ events – those previously rare historic events like pandemics, once in a thousand year floods, more intense and frequent hurricanes, and other cataclysmic events brought on by climate change – doing good must become a benchmark for business as usual, as opposed to business unusual. Your reputation depends on it.

1. Show, don’t tell

As is the case with any significant cultural shift, the era of doing good will be defined by both leaders and laggards. The leaders will lead and the laggards will either be dragged along, or become obsolete and simply fade away.

This will also become an era defined by doing good as opposed to simply talking about doing good. This really is all about truly living your organizational values. Many organizations when either caught in a crisis or a business-redefining cycle (like a global pandemic) lean into their organizational values to help weather the storm. Some pay lip-service but others really do walk the talk. While not perfect, some recent examples of companies and organizations truly living their brand values include Uber with the launch of their contact tracing app and Chef José Andrés who transformed his restaurants into community kitchens.

Again, the distinction being that both employees and consumers will eventually walk if you fail to live up to your lofty ideals. Chef Andrés certainly showed that the proof is in the pudding.

2. Silence isn’t an option

Let’s face it, most large businesses and organizations are risk-averse and afraid of change. If they had shadows, they would be scared to death of them. This risk aversion often manifests itself in sideline or fence-sitting when significant social, political, environmental, or global health issues arise. The default corporate reputation management strategy is generally to advise executives to stay under the radar. Don’t attract any attention. Don’t rock the boat.

The confluence of COVID-19 and broader issues of social and systemic injustice (both in Canada and the United States, more acutely) means that corporate fence-sitting is no longer an option. Organizations must stand up for what they believe in, and communicate those shared values, or become obsolete.

As the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (special report) elucidates, companies and big brands can’t be in the business of problem avoidance (doing nothing or being silent) they must be committed to tackling the biggest challenges of our day, and they must advocate for change.

“A global pandemic and economic crisis, and mass demonstrations over centuries of systemic racism and racial injustice have pushed brands to the forefront of societal change. It’s not enough for brands to issue a statement or make an emotional ad. Consumers expect that brands will act and advocate on the personal and societal issues that affect their lives.” According to the Edelman Trust Survey, 85 percent of respondents want brands to solve their problems and 80 percent want brands to solve society’s problems. When 80 percent of people agree on anything, silence isn’t a plausible corporate reputation strategy.

3. Doing good is a reputation boost

Earlier in the pandemic I wrote a column on the possibility of kindness making a coronavirus comeback . While I’m not as certain about my prior premise that kindness is making a comeback, I am quite certain that doing good will give your company/organization a positive reputation boost. You don’t have to take my word for it. The Edelman Trust Barometer has all the data we need.

The Edelman trust survey clearly shows that people (consumers) around the world are both buying and boycotting products based on a company or brand’s response to the pandemic. 44% began using a product based on the company’s innovative or compassionate response to the pandemic (up 7%) and 40% indicated that they had convinced others to stop using a brand (up 6%) that was not responding appropriately to the pandemic. 58% of respondents globally also indicated that for brands to keep their trust they must be a positive force in shaping our culture. If that isn’t an endorsement for doing good, I’m not sure what is.

4. C-suite must stand for caring and compassion: survival of the kindest

In this informative piece from Harvard Business Review on what good businesses look like, the authors make a compelling argument that the disruptive forces at work in shifting markets and societal norms are the new and powerful yardstick that will define how companies and company executives are measured in this new normal. Where doing good can be the norm, and not the exception.

“Companies that demonstrate a lack of empathy, that don’t stretch themselves to serve others, that remain silent or self-serving, whose leaders refuse to share in the economic pain, risk finding their brands and reputations permanently scarred. Perhaps, just perhaps, our future will be shaped by a kind of reverse Darwinism: survival of the kindest and most benevolent, rather than the most ferocious and self-obsessed.”

This perspective is both echoed and validated in the Edelman Trust Barometer. CEOs and C-suite leaders can choose to ignore this seismic shift at their own peril. People want brand and brand leadership to protect their people, to be more accessible, more empathetic, more focused on societal issues, and to back up their words with actions. This sounds like a pretty compelling case for doing more good, not less. It’s almost as if it’s good for business, and people simply expect it. The numbers don’t lie.


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