Elections, CSR, Hurricanes and Common Threads

US Presidential Election

The US electorate has been locked into a bitter divide over the Presidential election for the past year and a half, and while voters can get caught up in issues of the moment, in some ways, it really doesn’t matter who wins. The basic realities of the global market will continue to come into sharper focus regardless of who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave next January 21st. Sure, there are policy differences that can be debated ad nauseum, but the simple fact remains: the world is changing, regardless of who voters in the US pull the lever for.

Consider a handful of stories from the past 2 weeks. Cone Communications released the 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker on October 23 which reveals that a staggering 84 percent of those surveyed indicated that they hold companies accountable for producing and communicating the actual results of their CSR initiatives. Stop and think about that for a moment.

The study goes on to reveal that 82 percent say they are more likely to purchase a product that clearly demonstrates the results of the company’s CSR initiatives than one that does not, and 40 percent say they will not purchase a company’s products or services if CSR results are not communicated.  This is a huge deal for everyone in a leadership position in corporate America. Consider yourself on notice.

Later that week, Siemans and McGraw-Hill Construction released the 2012 Greening of Corporate America report which indicated that some 42% of companies say sustainability plays a key role in business operations. Notable in the article is that “About half of the executives surveyed expect both lower healthcare costs and greater worker productivity as a result of their sustainability investments.”  In other words, this is just good business and makes employees healthier and happier.

And then, Hurricane Sandy hit. In some ways, we were all affected by this devastating super storm. Anyone who does business in or with the US was likely affected. Certainly those who operate in the Northeast feel the ongoing pain of this natural disaster. But, is there a link to climate change here? If so, then what?

The Harvard Business Review recently published an article on their blog which makes the case that regardless of whether Sandy was or wasn’t caused by climate change, businesses are impacted and must adapt. For the record, the author does indeed make the case that the science is clear that human-induced climate change is a culprit, and we need to pursue a double-prong strategy of mitigating additional warming and adapting to what we can’t avoid. He poignantly states:

“If you’re going to really assess risk to your operations now and in the future, you have to understand how climate change will increase the likelihood of severe events and what it will mean for your value chain. Not doing so would be costly, stupid, and irresponsible to your shareholders.”
– Andrew Winston, Harvard Business Review

Taken on their own, these 3 issues referenced above might light up different departments within a corporation, but let’s consider what broader implications are woven together here. First, let’s acknowledge that these are not political issues. Regardless of who occupies the White House for the next 4 years, the sentiments reflected in these examples will undoubtedly continue and likely intensify.

What does this mean for brands?

For starters, standing for something and meaning it is not a differentiator anymore. It’s the cost of entry. But it’s not enough to mean it. You have to prove it by doing things that are meaningful and communicate these actions in a way that your customers and other stakeholders can relate to. If you don’t know what values your customers hold dear, you’re going to be shooting in the dark on this front.

Secondly, on the sustainability front, the trend toward prioritizing sustainability within Corporate America is undeniable. This is also clearly good business. But is it also good PR? Maybe. It depends on the shared values with customers and most importantly how they are lived out and communicated from the brand. Consider how sustainability initiatives, when communicated effectively to customers may satisfy the demand for accountability from your brand.

Lastly, the issue of climate change and extreme weather in the marketplace raises several questions. Is this the ‘new normal?’ How can we be proactive to mitigate future disasters? What role can businesses play in this mitigation and adaptation? Do sustainability initiatives discussed above play a role?

Lest we forget, tremendous suffering persists a week after Sandy came ashore in the Northeastern US. Hundreds of thousands of people are without power, tens of thousands are homeless and there are still gas lines in New York reminiscent of the 1970s oil embargoes. Disasters of this magnitude cut across political lines and remind us just how connected we really are – to each other and to the planet that we inhabit. They also remind us how vulnerable our systems are to natural disasters. From Wall Street closing to the NYC Subway system completely shutting down, the impacts on global commerce are far-reaching.

If you believe climate change played a role in the disaster, as many people do, is there not an expectation that we need to do something about it so we don’t set ourselves up to repeat this scenario again and again into the future? If you believe this has nothing to do with climate change and there is nothing we can do to prevent this from happening again, prudence dictates that you must still acknowledge that there is a significant impact to commerce from events like this. Whichever belief you hold, in the end it’s what your stakeholders believe that matters most to the business. And they are talking about it, to be sure.

We’ve discussed our beliefs around brand values, accountability, sustainability, transparency,and understanding your most valuable customers in more detail here on the site. This isn’t simply warm, fuzzy stuff here. This is business – plain and simple. Only the strong will survive, and in order to be strong, you must know what matters most to the people who ring the cash register and then adapt your business accordingly.

We invite you to dig beneath the headlines and the rhetoric of the election season and consider how responding proactively to the bigger challenges the world is facing can give you a competitive advantage while saving you money at the same time.

What do you think? Is your brand ready to step to the plate?