there is a huge battle raging for the heart and soul of commerce and culture in the new world
The conflict is natural, ancient, heated, complex and difficult to resolve at any level. And while it might appear to people on either side of the chasm to be the good fight against evil, it's really not. The vitriol amongst combatants is understandable but perhaps unnesessary. That a business could contribute to the wealth of shareholders and the quality of life for relevant stakeholders in its ecosystem is the real revolutionary idea.
It's not a question of whether social or economic impact is more important. It's a question of how to have both. It just takes some effort, creativity and faith to resolve the paradox and some courage in getting the message out to the people interested in hearing it.
Building brands in this complicated and quickly evolving business and cultural environment is challenging to say the least. Two large companies in the swirl (and swoosh) of this work illustrate the risks and opportunities of navigating down this path.
When does it makes sense for us to join the conversation?
Nike has been taking a strongly prosocial approach to its famous advertising campaign strategy for some time now, touching on many social justice themes. Even though concepts like equality, inclusion and diversity have their fanatics and critics, they also have practical value in building an excellent business.
This spring, they engaged the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in a branding and marketing program. Coincidentally, Bud Light hired Mulvaney for a similar branding engagement in the same month. Both programs stirred up considerable controversy and revealed the contrasting ways two different brands react to blowback, boycotts and cancellation intiatives–and how they express or fail to express their purpose through their marketing efforts.
Large global brands have complex coalitions of different audiences to manage. This is clearly not a simple or easy proposition. As an expression of one such constituency, Kid Rock destroyed cases of Bud Light with a machine gun while wearing a MAGA hat. This was just one of many high-profile attacks coming at the brand and company from all directions. All this prompted the Anheuser Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth to post a manifesto called "Our responsibility to America". Despite a history of supporting diversity and inclusion, it had the flavour of watered-down beer and ended with a bit of a meek declaration of "higher" purpose. "We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer".* Nike took the other path.
When does it makes sense to double down on or shift a strategy in the face of opposition?
A colleague of mine has been doing sustainability work with large organizations for several decades. Dr. Brian Nattrass and his wife and partner, Dr. Mary Nattrass, have been on the front line of what's evolved into the ESG movement, pioneering some of the crucial practices that make up the environmental-social-governance framework. (ESG replaced corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a model for ethical and sustainable business practice, but is itself coming under fire.)
Long before transgender issues became a battle ground in the ideological war, Brian and Mary were brought in to work with Nike shortly after the company came under fire for their supply chain practices–specifically the allegations of sweat shop practices by its contract manufacturers in faraway third-world regions. As a business that outsources virtually all of the production of the billions of dollars of products that bear the swoosh logo, it would have been easy for them to shirk their duty or miss the opportunity to transform their manufacturing practices. From this primordial cultural soup emerged a philosophy of "do the right thing", which evolved into cradle-to-grave responsibility extending into all the communities their business touched around the world.
How vigourously do we need to enforce our values through the ecosystem?
Upon learning about this, I was instantly suspicious of corporate greenwashing, or what we would today call virtue signalling. But Brian was adamant that the program was sincere and authentic. Nike is, from his viewpoint, an organization of elite athletes who value excellence. They didn't like what this exposure said about them. The actions of their contract manufacturers were not in alignment with Nike's own values. I respect that. It was legit, and not full of shit–like so many businesses today, publicly claiming to operate with sound ESG principles, and then privately ignoring them.
"BSG" is becoming a more known term to describe a toxic mix of pandering on the one side and pillaging on the other. Consumers are not dumb or ill-informed. They can tell when a profiteering company is pretending to be more of citizen than it really is. And the falls from grace are increasingly lethal. But for a company that really does give a shit, even if it falters in its execution, people are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. That's the goodwill housed in the brand. Purpose done right can be very profitable.
What do we do if we start getting push back?
Nike, as it did for Tiger Woods** when he was going through his troubles, doubled down on it's decision. In answering the critics of their choice to collaborate with Mulvaney, Nike posted on Instagram: "You are an essential component to the success of your community! We welcome comments that contribute to a positive and constructive discussion: Be kind… Be inclusive… Encourage each other… Hate speech, bullying, or other behaviors that are not in the spirit of a diverse and inclusive community will be deleted".*** And that was that. Principles only mean something when they're inconvenient.
Like many entrepreneurs in Canada I suspect, I occupy a political middle ground as a fiscal conservative and social liberal. Transgender people have become an unfortunate casualty in the political culture war between the woke forces of exuberant social liberalism on the one hand and the traditional fundamentalists on the other. I might have had a hard time navigating this difficult terrain, but I have a transgender child. He is a vibrant and interesting person, not a political object. This is just a practical reality for him and for me: neither of us like to see people abused and bullied.
A person, a team and organzation can either express its higher purpose as a way to guide its strategy and inform well-chosen moral stands in the face of "ideological disagreement"–or they can crumble under the heat of commercial pressure. This pressure exists for all of us as we come to terms with what we really value and what really matters. And as citizens, we need to be prepared to defend our ethical positions or deal with feedback we get about potential deviations from what we would consider good behaviour. I am not immune to this either. (At the age of five, my youngest son called me out for being late several times to pick him up from day care: "Daddy you're losing your 'tegrity." He couldn't pronounce or spell the word but I got the message loud and clear.) This is about the congruity of purpose and action.
How do we push through outdated norms and obsolete standards?
While Nike surely has a long history of imperfections and failing to back itself (their compensation policies for female athletes being a prime example), I think they would describe their purpose and what the organization is about in this way: overcoming adversity, rising to the challenge and achieving the glory of victory. I think they really try to live up to that and and they sell stuff that facilitates this purpose.
The idealogical schism that exists between the political left and right has suppressed civil discourse and critical thinking. This is a big miss. The majority of us have more moderate views on either side of the middle and we have lost the richness of diverse discourse and constructive dialog with people who are simply different than we are.
Progress in organizations and movements reflects a commonwealth of shared values, surely. Values and purpose only mean something when we stand to lose something by standing for them. But while values alignment is necessary, it's insufficient to move the world forward. The tattered and ambiguous fringe areas where they are difficult to apply cleanly or easily may well offer the greatest learning for us all. "Constructive" polarity is a much needed counterbalance in the on-going conversation between progress and preservation.
A vibrant collective of distinctive, interesting and yes, opposing viewpoints is a required as part of the social, technological and political innovation we need to sustain not just humanity and a healthy economy, but the natural world that supports all life. That uneasy feeling of risk is our invitation to consider something that could disrupt an old and unworkable pattern of thought and action. Simply asking the opinion of someone you might disagree with is an excellent start.
Relationships do not flourish without a mix of sameness and differentness, whether they are friendships, marriages, business partnerships, teams, organizations, markets, communities or nations as a whole. I learned that best from my youngest son–a beautiful person with the courage and integrity to be true to himself. I'm certain that honouring that is a big part of my purpose.
**I don't necessarily condone the behaviour that led to so many of his cancellations but I respect that he seemed committed to doing the work to become a better person and has progressed. I have compassion for the man.