An illustration of four people in front of a flag, in a stance reminiscent of the popular 'taking the knee' protest from American Football games

2019 looks set to be the year when brands strive to articulate purpose in ways that cut through the noise to resonate with the concerns of stakeholders and the markets plus societies where they operate.

Nike’s Kaepernick ad last autumn, endorsing black athletes’ ‘taking a stand’ against racism, and Gillette’s recent ad in response to #MeToo drove peaks of conversation (fig 1) comparable to Mark Zuckerberg testimony before the US senate. Where Facebook was being held to account over data privacy and its impact on democratic elections, Nike and Gillette sought to proactively align with powerful and often polarising concerns about racial and gender inequality.

[Fig 1: RepVault timeline benchmarking the impact of the Nike Kaepernick ad (blue spike) in Sept 18 and Gillette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ ad in Feb 19. The impact score (y axis) reflects the significance of the publication, its reach and the company’s profile in that discourse. The colour coded bar reflects the sentiment of conversation with red being negative, amber neutral, and green positive.]

Love or hate the ads, many commentators applauded the effort even if questioning the execution and whether the values proclaimed in the campaigns had genuine depth or breadth across the businesses involved, let alone long-term social impact. Some described the initiatives as woke-washing. Gillette’s ambition to inspire men ‘to be the best they can’, for instance, led to questions about why the firm still charges women more than men for the same products. And while Nike’s campaign advocated standing up for diversity and inclusion, its female employees were taking it to court for its approach to sexual harassment.

The ‘woke-washing’ accusation cuts to the core of challenges facing large organisations when seeking to define and execute a meaningful ‘brand purpose’. Last year Paul Polman, exiting CEO of Unilever, said: ‘In all our launches, purpose is becoming more important. If you look at plastics, consumers led that. You would be stupid not to be a forerunner on the need to be responsible’. A critical differentiator for Unilever of course is that it has long had sustainability embedded in its core business model and not just its brand and marketing messaging.

Recent research also points to growing expectations of business leaders to take a stand. One survey found 64% of people think company bosses should lead change and not wait for government, while over half would not trust a CEO who is silent. Another US study found nearly 8 in 10 consumers think CEOs should speak out when their company values are violated or threatened. Apple’s Tim Cook, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey all took a stand respectively on inequality, racism and gun control last year. Dozens of CEOs have spoken against President Trump’s position on climate change and many tech CEOs voiced support of ‘Dreamers’ and against anti-immigration policies.

In this high stakes, high scrutiny and often highly emotive and politicised environment, what are the opportunities and challenges for companies, brands and CEOs when it comes to taking a ‘responsible’ values-based stand on social issues? Here is our starter for three.

  1. Get granular about the external landscape of debate: In a recent PWC survey of 1300 CEOs, over 90% said data about reputation and brand was critical to how they navigate their business, but less than a quarter perceived their current intelligence as adequate. In our own recent research, brand leaders and corporate affairs heads told us they value reputation data and insights that help them analyse their brand and reputation in the context of global discourse about defining issues, from innovation to environment, culture and social impact. Sustainability chiefs also told us data on macro-trends and material issues is fundamental to inform how their companies deliver accountability and transparency.
  2. Have integrity (and don’t woke-wash): Our partners, BSR, undertakes an annual survey of their 300 or so corporate members to identify their views on priorities for business. In 2018, we looked at those self-identified topics to see if public debate in social media reflected the same prioritization. We found that business ethics was the top social media concern across sectors, followed by lobbying and approaches to diversity and inclusion. The key message was that stakeholders want businesses to be ethical and certainly not to espouse corporate and brand values that get discarded when it comes to protecting interests in the corridors of power. Reputation intelligence has a role to play in democratising insights to public expectations across an enterprise as a way to drive more joined-up thinking, better governance, stronger co-ordination and ultimately leadership and integrity across actions and words.
  3. Measure impact, risk and value: The only way brand and reputation performance can be appraised is to precisely track the ways in which trust, risk, perception and value are created, compromised or destroyed. When reputation intelligence is based on appraisal of tens of millions of posts a day in real-time, it can aggregate, track and quantify the proportion of risk-based language in conversation and score how stakeholders talk about a brand and sub-brands in different languages and markets. This is not old-fashioned fuzzy sentiment analysis – it is natural language processing to benchmark reputation risk (and opportunity) exactly. The Board can set a baseline to benchmark and track over time as well as identifying drivers of progress and how the key non-financial assets of brand and reputation relate to other data from sales to footfall and share price.

If 2019 is the year when brands harness themselves to some of the world’s most pressing concerns to demonstrate value and purpose, then it should also be the year when CEOs get the reputation intelligence they need to ensure value is being created and not just woke-wash.

Polecat Intelligence provides global reputation intelligence for companies around the world. Contact us to provide you with a more detailed review of your company’s reputation requirements today.