Puzzled about purpose? Worried about wokewashing? Cindy Gallop cuts through the crap.
In January 2019, Alan Jope succeeded Paul Polman as CEO of Unilever. One of his first publicly announced initiatives was to combat what he calls ‘wokewashing’ – the social responsibility equivalent of bogus greenwashing campaigns aimed at appearing socially conscious.
He announced it at that year’s Cannes Lions International Festival and it was duly reported in the likes of Business Week. In an effort to transform hundreds of products such as TRESemmé shampoo and Marmite yeast spread into beacons of justice and empowerment, Jope has ordered his executives to assign a clear, specific mission to each.
“We are committed to all our brands having a purpose – we will give them time to identify what this is and how they can take meaningful action,” he said.
I applaud the theory but not the practice. What Jope has done is sent a ton of marketing directors and brand managers scurrying off to their teams – and their agencies – to make the same mistake that so many companies, and so many individuals do.
When companies, and people, think about doing good, all too often they translate that into: “I want to do something good. So I’m going to find a cause and attach myself to it, and then I’ll do things for that cause.” But that’s not how it works. Being genuinely socially responsible is actually a lot simpler, and a lot more fundamental, than that.
There are four simple steps every brand and company that truly wants to be socially responsible, should take. Interestingly, they’re exactly the same steps that an individual who wants to be socially responsible should take.
It starts with self-examination.
Step 1: Look inside yourself to identify your values – and your responsibilities
Years ago, I observed that the single biggest pool of untapped natural resource in this world is human good intentions that never translate into action. Then I realised that there’s another, equally huge untapped pool of resources – corporate good intentions. Companies have good intentions just like people do, and like people, they too find it hard to identify quick, easy, simple ways to act on those intentions.
Look within. Deep within. Because everything in life – and business – starts with you and your values. Too few people engage in the exercise of looking inside yourself and asking yourself “What do I stand for? What am I all about? What do I believe in? What are my values?”
That is the definition of your social responsibility – literally what you need to take responsibility for and voluntarily be responsible for, because of what you do and who you are.
Step 2: Channel those values and that responsibility through a diverse lens
Yes, I’m talking about diversity. But I’m not a fan of the word ‘diversity’. Because it’s not about diversity – it’s about humanity. When we talk about diversity, all we’re talking about is reflecting the world as it really is. No brand can do this without operating through a diverse lens: to sell to and operate in the world as it really is, every company needs to reflect the world as it really is – in its leadership, its ranks and its communications. And that means reflecting intersectional diversity: diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age... To see why this is so critical to build socially responsible businesses, we need only examine the tech sector.
Many of the societal problems coming out of the technology sector are because of homogeneity. The young white male founders of the tech platforms that dominate our lives today are not the primary targets (online or offline) of harassment, abuse, sexual assault, violence, rape – so they don’t, and didn’t, proactively design for it.
Those of us who are most at risk every single day – women, people of colour, LGBTQ, disabled – design safe spaces and experiences. I and my predominantly female team spent literally years concepting and designing my user-generated social sex video-sharing startup MakeLoveNotPorn before we ever built it. We knew that if we were going to invite people to do something they’d never done before – socially share their realworldsex online – we had to think through every possible ramification of that in order to create a completely safe and trustworthy space.
Step 3: Redesign your business model around your responsibility
The future of social responsibility is doing good and making money simultaneously. Not in the old world order way most companies approach this, by separating out that on the one hand we make money, and then on the other hand we write cheques to causes to clear our conscience. But rather the new world order way of, we make money because we do good; we find a way to integrate social responsibility into the way we do business on a day to day basis, that therefore makes it a key driver of future growth and profitability.
Step 4: Live it
At the most basic level, when you live and work your values and your responsibility, it results in peace of mind. It doesn’t matter where anyone might come across you or what you’re discovered doing, because you will always be operating according to those values, and so you will never have anything to hide.
It also makes life a lot simpler. Your values and your responsibility are your filter for anything and everything you do. Life will still throw at you everything it always does, but you will always know exactly how to respond in any given situation, in a way that is true to you and your brand.
Importantly, your employees know that they can believe in the brand. They know why they come to work each morning. They know what they can tell their friends they do. They know they’ll never feel betrayed.
Your analysts, shareholders and observers know that your actions align with your words. There will be no nasty surprises and consequent impact on valuation.
And your consumers know what they’re buying. They will buy you for your product benefits first and foremost, but when those come with a clear understanding of your responsibility, and inherent, integral action taken on that responsibility that aligns with their own values – it’s a slam dunk. Communication through demonstration.
So. What does your brand stand for?
Cindy Gallop is the co-author of Fast Forward Files Volume 2: Changing Perspective: Why everything will be different for generation next, available now at Amazon.