In Troubled Times, Big Business Must Step Up. Here’s How.


Legacy brands should find the global challenge they are best placed to solve, and get to work.

So Trump’s business councils fell apart after a host of CEOs quit in the wake of Charlottesville. For those of us obsessed by the future of business, last week was a telling one.

That the POTUS can’t hold together a collection of some of the country’s most senior business leaders says a lot. And it’s deeply welcome that so many CEOs decided after Charlottesville that they could no longer be associated with Trump (though, guys, who did you think he was when you joined the councils?).

But all this also raises a deeper, more long term question. What is the future when it comes to the epic search for a more ethical business? So how can we create a new business paradigm that not only minimizes social and environmental harms, but actively makes the world a better place?

I have an idea about how the world’s biggest brands should — and must — change in the years ahead. It starts with this one counterintuitive thought: what if big business stopped being the sustainability, ethics, health and fairness problem, and started being the answer to some of the world’s greatest shared challenges?

Sounds crazy?

Flip Your Thinking

Conventional thinking on how we build a more ethical and sustainable business future typically revolves around startups. In recent years, a host of startups — think TOMs or Tesla — have pointed the way to a shinier, happier consumerism and hoarded all the ethics kudos for themselves. Think about the last brand you were actively proud to engage with — was it a big, old legacy brand or a startup?

As for big brands, the conventional thinking is that they’re polluting our skies, pushing us sugar, exploiting vulnerable workers, invading our privacy and more. Of course, that’s a gross simplification. But it’s inarguable that many big brands currently cause more social and environmental harm than good. The consequence? Millions of consumers feel distrust, distaste, even hatred for the big brands that surround them.

But what if we took the way we think about big brands, and turned it on its head?

Because there’s an issue with the idea that big brands are the problem and startups are the answer. Sure, many of today’s iconic startups do have great values baked in from the start; they are more ethical and sustainable. But these startups are limited in reach and resources. They lack the scale to effect truly massive, widespread change.

Big brands, on the other hand, have real power. Insurgents are fun, sure. But the world’s biggest businesses have unrivaled ability to start changing the world right now.

Unique Capabilities and Massive Scale

Big brands as the world’s most powerful force for good. It might sound like a crazy idea. But isn’t a crazy idea long overdue? We’ve all spent years talking about the need for change. But are we really any closer to the system-wide trajectory shift that is needed?

Big brands have the scale, reach, resources and human capital, as well as decades of accumulated skills and knowledge, needed to effect massive change. They can do things that no one else — in some cases, not even national governments — can do.

The road to redemption is an arduous one. But it’s time to start putting one foot in front of the other.

Take Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola system (the company plus local bottling partners) employs 700,000 people in over 200 countries. It’s one of the most effective mechanisms for manufacture and global distribution ever devised. Can we afford — as a society, as a planet — for that organization to exist solely to make money? Will Coca-Cola even survive long-term if that is its only purpose?

What if, instead, Coca-Cola leveraged its unique capabilities — in this case its amazing global distribution network — as a force for good? That was the thought that drove this British entrepreneur to work with Coke to make medicine packets that can slip inside Coca-Cola crates.

But what if every massive global brand chose the one, epic shared challenge it was best placed to solve and got to work? How much positive change could happen?

Big Brand Redemption

That’s the idea at the heart of Big Brand Redemption: big, old legacy brands should find the global challenge their unique resources, scale, global presence and expertise make them best placed to solve, and then take action.

What does that look like?

It looks a lot like Unilever’s epic mission to spread life-saving hand hygiene education to 1 billion people around the world.

Since 2010, Unilever CEO Paul Polman has committed the brand to tackling one of the world’s most pressing health problems. According to the WHO, 800,000 children aged five and under die from diarrhea each year, most in developing countries, and mostly due to infections that can be prevented by better hand hygiene.

The brand’s Lifebuoy Handwashing Behaviour Change Program aims to reach 1 billion children in Asia, South America and Africa with an education program based around the idea of washing hands five times a day. In Thesgora, India, the intervention cut incidence of diarrhea from 36% to 6% according to an independent survey carried out by Nielsen.

To date, Unilever say they’ve reached 300 million people. That’s a brand with a truly epic mission to save millions of lives around the world. To become a public health organization, funded by sales of beverage, cleaning and health products.

Unilever’s amazing program is perhaps the fullest example of a big, legacy brand seeking redemption. But others are also starting along the path.

See Volvo’s VISION 2020 commitment that no one should die or be seriously injured in a new Volvo from 2020 onwards. Around 1.25 million people per year die as a result of traffic accidents, according to the WHO. Volvo’s aim to ‘build a car that is nearly impossible to crash’ amounts to a mission to solve one of humanity’s greatest shared challenges. To achieve full redemption, Volvo should also commit to keeping their safety tech open source: just as they did when they invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959 and refused to patent it. That’s how they double-down on a mission to become a road-safety organization funded by the sale of safe cars.

Finally, check out CVS Health’s #BeTheFirst, a five-year USD 50 million plan to work towards a smoke-free generation. Nicotine use is still the largest cause of preventable death in the US, causing over 480,000 deaths a year. The brand stopped selling all nicotine products across its 9,600 stores, at an estimated revenue cost of $2 billion a year, and will work with charities to spread anti-smoking education across the country. To approach full redemption, CVS should commit fully to their mission to become the brand that owns and wins the battle against smoking in the US.

Yes I’m Serious

I know what you’re thinking. Big brands don’t exist to make the world better. They exist to satisfy their shareholders, and that means making money. Businesses have to make money. Or they stop existing.

Yes. But Big Brand Redemption isn’t just about doing what’s right for the world. It’s also about doing what’s right for the bottom line, long-term. In other worlds, in the end seeking redemption is just enlightened self interest.

We know that rising numbers of consumers are trapped in a toxic guilt-spiral when it comes to the negative impacts their consumption has on the planet, other people, or themselves. In a recent global survey by Havas, 53% of consumers said that they actively avoid consuming from companies that have a negative environmental or social impact. And that jumped to 66% among specially-identified leading-edge consumers who tend to adopt behaviours before the mainstream.

Meanwhile, insurgent startups are rewiring consumer expectations on what is possible when it comes to a shinier, happier consumerism. When an insurgent brand such as footwear manufacturer Veja makes a line of trainers exclusively out plastic bottles, that helps heighten consumer expectations on around positive impact. Remember, consumers only have to see that story to have their expectations changed — they don’t have to buy anything. No surprise, then, that legacy player Adidas recently came out with a line of trainers made from recycled ocean plastic, and have now promised to manufacture 1 million pairs in 2017, and eventually eliminate non-recycled plastic from their supply chain.

Put all this together, and the message is clear: big brands need to change. I’m not saying we’re there yet. But in the decades ahead, legacy brands that don’t want to fall foul of consumer apathy (or hatred) and more ethical, more sustainable, just better insurgents, must find a way to transform themselves.

The most powerful way? Seek out the massive shared challenge they are best placed to tackle, and take action. Seek redemption!

What Can You Do?

Maybe you’ve identified one other challenge here: a brand can only start on the path to redemption if there is buy-in at the very top.

So if that’s not you, what can you do?

Well, who is going to light the fuse inside your organization that leads to that change? You, of course!

Start a movement inside your brand. Become an evangelist. Write your own Big Brand Redemption manifesto — or share this one.

Remember, this isn’t about siphoning some money into a bolt-on CSR initiative (as worthwhile as some of them are). This is about a new model of what a big brand should be. That means identifying the epic problem that your brand — with its unique blend of resources, people and knowledge — is best placed to solve.

And remember, your big brand is part of the world, too. When it comes to positive change, why not start from the inside out? I’ve written more on that in this article: In 2017, your internal culture is your brand.

Remember, for any big brand the journey towards redemption is a long one. But it starts with a single step. So get going!

David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching.

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