This is an opinion piece by Burkey Belser, president and creative director of Greenfield/Belser, who moderated the ADWKDC keynote session Innovation and the Politics of Brands. Panelists included Heidi Guerard, Design Director, &pizza; Alejandra Owens, VP of Social Communications, AARP; and Scott Martin, former CMO, Philips Lighting.
I moderated an ADWKDC panel on what proved to be an untouchable topic. In the end, none of the panelists really wanted to embrace the hot potato and that was, truth be told, completely understandable. Here’s the issue in a nutshell:
The Harvard Business Review found that 46% of executives from large companies around the world prefer that companies speak out on issues such as climate change, gun control, immigration and LGBTQ rights. Should your company or institution speak out when it hears or sees moments that offend our core values?
If our panel was any measure of sentiment in the business community, the clear feeling was that companies are more than willing to speak out on issues that dovetail with their company’s interests.
Editor’s note: Our panelists spoke about when and how they lend their brand equity to issues:
- Guerard said that &pizza’s leadership is vocal when its influence can make a difference and it joined the fight for a $15 minimum wage because one of &pizza’s principles is “Tribe First” (employees as family).
— Danielle Veira (@DaniV7101) October 4, 2017
- Owens said that being outspoken is in AARP’s DNA and that now is the time to take positions, including advocacy for health care. She added that AARP seeks to live its values and has a “duty to take action if it’s connected to our brand.”
— Stephanie Levy (@stephanie_levy) October 4, 2017
- Martin said that Philips’ devotion to sustainability and improving lives is authentically connected to the brand and led to its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2020.
Patagonia (not on our panel) is a good example. The company recently ran its one and only ad when Trump declared all federal lands to be up for review and potential industry exploitation. Patagonia, frankly, takes no risk at all by standing with its customer base of hikers and campers.
Scott Martin would certainly concur with the Patagonia strategy. Philips talks about “light poverty” around the world. Wiring the unlit portions of the planet would only be in the company’s best interests. Martin did not talk about (he wasn’t asked) what might happen if the installation of electricity resulted in despoliation of otherwise untrammeled wilderness.
In other words, companies will be bold when it costs them nothing in revenue, reputation or loss of stock value.
Where the Discussion Could Have Gone
I had hoped to direct the conversation toward this question: When moral sensibility is so offended that silence seems immoral, who will speak up then? Remember Edmund Burke who said that the triumph of evil requires only that good men do nothing. This post is no political screed, but our president has actually said: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”
Does this offend our nation’s bedrock values of freedom of the press? Doesn’t the base of the Statue of Liberty say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? When a CEO hears Trump, should he speak out?
Trump again: “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man—he made a good decision.”
Does this offend you as a person, not just a woman? And as a father and a mother? Isn’t gender equality written into the law? Gay or straight? When a CEO hears this, should she speak out?
Again: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16-year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad.”
The disabled are a protected class for good reason. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”? Doesn’t common decency recoil at the president’s behavior?
I don’t need to pick on President Trump. I could mosey over to Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. Bad behavior shows up everywhere but that is exactly the point. When bad behavior shows up, we stand up to it, right? Bad behavior in private might result in a punch in the nose. But this conversation was about public behavior, public at the highest levels. Should CEOs stand up at risk to their companies and say, “Stop!”?
Talking About Values
Our informal poll of the audience showed that no companies had values statements that explicitly addressed these issues. Most were content to call for excellence of product as well as service excellence to customers. Perhaps it is too much to ask. General Electric is not a church and even if Jack Welch thought he stepped down off the mountain with tablets, the company’s value statement says nothing about this set of values.
One reason CEOs might not want to join the conversation when it gets heated? It risks further balkanization of the country. According to The New York Times, “The nation has split into political tribes. The culture wars are back, waged over transgender rights and immigration.” But in the same article, the author notes: “in this turbulence, a surprising group is testing its moral voice forcefully: CEOs.”
— AAF DC (@AAF_DC) October 4, 2017
In truth, we never got the conversation started although our panelists were intelligent, insightful, thoughtful and well spoken. Speaking out loud on charged topics is risky business. But these are questions you should ask yourself: “Where is my line in the sand? At what point does my silence scream louder than the complaint of those who endure bad behavior?”
Burkey Belser is the president and creative director of Greenfield/Belser, a full-service brand research, strategy and interactive design agency focused exclusively on complex relationship-driven services. He has won hundreds of awards in every major field of graphic design and was recently inducted into the Washington Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Recently, Burkey was one of nine judges for the Communication Arts Design Annual, America’s oldest and most prestigious design competition.