Jeremy Osborn Hope Freedman and Tom Idle
Published 1 month ago.
About a 11 minute read.
Another strong thread throughout SB’23 San Diego addressed the tightrope that brands must often walk when working to stay true to their values — and not letting ‘purpose fragility’ rule in our politically polarized world.
L-R: Elizabeth Doty, Sandy Skees, Maureen Kline, Hugh Welsh and Reuven
In an era of increasing political
what are the risks and benefits for brands of taking a stand on political
issues? Kicking off a week full of rich discussions on the theme from a variety
of angles, this Monday morning workshop brought together leading sustainability
communicators and practitioners to discuss this timely and often fraught topic.
Panel members included Sandy Skees,
Global Leader for Purpose and Impact at Porter
Carlyle, founder of Earth
from the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute;
President & General Counsel at DSM Firmenich North
America; and Maureen
VP of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Pirelli Tire North
The group discussed the current environment of corporate conflict and distrust
that makes collaboration hard as well as risky due to antitrust
The group also led workshop activities with attendees on the topic, and
discussed ways to leverage the Erb Principles for Corporate Political
Engagement to help
companies navigate if and when to engage on political and civic issues with
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The Erb Principles, it was explained, were "designed to be boring" and
non-partisan; and include guidelines on issues such as legitimacy,
responsibility, accountability and transparency. The idea of a "third side" to
an issue was presented as a way to overcome polarization; and participants were
encouraged by Doty to really think about the interests and concerns of the other
side and to look at a problem creatively to see if non-polarizing solutions and
perspectives might exist on an issue.
Principles, Doty explained, are "a place to stand" in the era of pushback and
and a way to speak confidently; though the group admitted that the risk of
was real and needed to be considered carefully, even on relatively simple
initiatives such as "get out the vote” activities within a company — which the
audience workshopped and shared their feedback on.
Image credit: Cottonbro Studio
Over lunch on Tuesday, the "To Act or Not to Act?" discussion dove into consumer
attitudes towards social responsibility and political action by brands. Sandy
Skees kicked off proceedings by sharing the latest results from Porter Novelli’s
2023 Purpose Priorities Report
— which asked 7,000 citizens (“I don’t like using the word consumers, as I don’t
necessarily identify as a consumer,” she says) what they want to see from brands
when it comes to being vocal on social and political issues. The research could
not be clearer: Consumers want action, not
Around 70 percent of people surveyed think companies should talk about
environmental and social issues on a regular and consistent basis throughout the
“Not surprisingly, Gen Z demands this more than older groups,” Skees said. “Yes,
people want bands to pursue diversity, for example. But they also want brands to
be more specific; they want the leadership of a company to look just the
community in which they sit.”
Consumers, by and large, want brands to speak up. In fact, 41 percent of people
want brands to talk about politics, specifically — up two percentage points from
last year (39 percent): “These are your young customers, employees and
investors. As we head into an election year in 2024, brands must be advocates
for the important issues that affect our lives.”
Skees also warned that the public will react should brands fail to heed the
advice: “They will stop purchasing from you. But they will increase those sales
if you are aligned to their values. Your Net Promoter Score will rise if you’ve
successfully articulated your position on issues people understand and care
In this context, it was then left to the panel to suggest appropriate approaches
and strategies. What happens when a major social issue presents itself? What
should brands do? In a world of extreme outrage, how should they react?
For Roma McCaig, Vice Chair of SB’s
Advisory Board, it all starts with your brand purpose. “Brands must be true to
it provides the guiding light — whether you’re a B Corp; a public firm or a
private, family-run enterprise. How you address social issues should be aligned
with what you stand for as a business.”
Aman Singh, Director of Global
Communications – Sustainability at Walmart, agreed —
admitting that the retailer is still grappling with this very subject: “You
start with what your customer wants. On issues such as climate change, it is
clear: You have to act. But then there are other issues that not everyone agrees
on. It does come down to your values and your purpose.”
Skees offered a stark reminder to the crowd of delegates: “Stakeholders expect
you to say something. Not participating is participating. Not saying something
is saying something. Your stakeholders hear your silence.”
She suggested that brands create a social-engagement strategy to understand
their thresholds, develop strategies and be prepared.
“On issues that are adjacent to your business and resonate with some of your
stakeholders, you must show up as an ally,” she asserted. “On the more salient
issues, it’s time to advocate and speak out. The aim is to create change.
“And then there’s being an activist
which is a risky place to be,” she added — pointing to the likes of outdoor
which has taken tough stances in defense of the natural environment.
According to Gina Lindblad
— SVP of Reputation Management at Porter Novelli — ultimately, it’s about being
prepared, rather than reactive: “You need to build the infrastructure internally
so that you can react. Being reactive can come across as performative and
McCaig agreed: “You need to constantly see around corners and prepare for what
could happen. It’s important to have a process in place in your organization
that allows you to identify, analyze, assess and decide how to respond before
it’s in front of you.”
The conversation continued by exploring how brands might behave during the
upcoming election period, particularly when it comes to ensuring people have
“The common starting point is to give access to all
McCaig said. “It’s not about telling your people how to vote but ensuring they
have the means to vote. That might be given them time off to vote or volunteer
at polling stations.”
Skees added that language is crucial: “It’s less about giving the ‘right to
vote’ and more about supporting individuals to participate in civil society.
That feels like a less charged way of framing it.”
As the floor opened up for questions, McCaig received a ripple of applause for
saying, “You don’t need to be a large business to participate in change.
Regardless of your size, you have a right to be vocal and push things forward
and drive progress. Even if you’re small, you can get a seat at the table.”
Image credit: Werner Pfennig
As companies scramble to address the full scope of work involved in achieving
sustainability and regeneration, our purpose-driven community is relentlessly
faced with uncomfortable situations, conversations and controversies; and all
too often, we end up focusing on alleviating symptoms rather than root causes.
However, there are productive ways to have difficult conversations.
In a lively and thought-provoking Tuesday afternoon breakout session, four
female sustainability leaders jumped into a candid and wide-ranging discussion
about “purpose fragility.” Brand and marketing strategist Touseef
Mirza facilitated the conversation
and posited that, due to a fear of backlash, many purpose practitioners tend to
avoid ‘ruffling feathers’ rather than presenting respectful, differing views.
She asserted that we tend to shy away from challenges and missteps that could
serve as learning for other brands, and underscored that it becomes essential
for this community of practitioners to be able to face difficult conversations.
In contextualizing “purpose fragility,” Henoscene
founder Asher Jay sees it as sharing
“how I am as a human being;” while Lola
Bakare — CMO Advisor & Inclusive
Marketing Strategist at be/co and author of
— likened it to being “bred to be resilient and comfortable with confrontation
as evidence of love and growth.” Freya
Williams, author of Green Giants
and Fractional Chief Strategy Officer at Revolt North
America, maintains that “purpose fragility” is about
contrarianism — notably outside prevalent thinking.
Bakare asserted that “we need to understand fragility — otherwise, we are
keeping the status quo and not protecting people from ongoing moral injury.” Jay
stated that purpose currently lacks flexibility; but “we need to find a way to
be elastic, so we can convey different perspectives” — adding that we need to
lean into our discomfort in order to learn and share respectfully with others.
Williams emphasized that “our job is to build confidence and exercise in belief”
because we have seen how conversation and debate can extinguish purpose by
allowing short-term capital gains to remain the norm versus the longer-term
pursuit of principles, equity and sustainability.
In terms of voicing personal opinions, Bakare said that it’s about personal
experimentation and finding a space or issue that you feel comfortable with —
without “tearing down” other individuals, groups or organizations. She added
that when challenging someone’s views, “you are showing them respect by being
passionate about what you care about.” Williams advised to focus on the change
you seek and take yourself out of it, sharing her resonant mantra: “I work for
change — not companies.” For Jay, she focuses on discussing failings and what we
can learn from each other to realize our own potential.
Mirza underscored that purpose practitioners have a lot of pressure while
constantly in experimentation mode. Williams acknowledged that it is “tough to
be out there as purpose practitioners who are trying to build a new system of
capitalism and to keep beliefs alive.” Practitioners are often in a
purpose-persuasion mode, constantly trying to counter any mistakes — all the
more reason to be open to honest conversations.
Bakare pointed out that there is a higher bar for mistakes related to social
good: “Why is there less grace to help put social good into the world? Why is
the burden of proof higher for purpose?”
The panel offered things to keep in mind when taking a stand or having an
Believe in your own power. Develop and self-identify your personal
authentically leans into your own theory of change (e.g., “optimistic
unifier”). Be clearer with each other as to your own style and role.
Understand where someone is coming from and find a way to coexist. Think
about wanting to be in conversation and bringing people along, rather than
being right. It is important to engage in nonjudgmental conversation.
Make room for the dialogue to be more elastic to ensure an inclusive
environment. Pose questions.
Reframe the conversation and come up with different, nuanced language.
At the onset, bring in those individuals who can make you feel
uncomfortable to fully consider a wider lens of social impact.
Be accountable, rather than relying on external validation.
Published Oct 24, 2023 10am EDT / 7am PDT / 3pm BST / 4pm CEST
Jeremy Osborn is a NYC-based entrepreneur and and senior consultant with a background in marketing and communications, tech, strategy, governance, and sustainability. He holds an MA in Resources, Environment, and Sustainability from the University of British Columbia and has worked for leading brands in a wide range of industries and sectors — including food and ag, consumer goods, built environment, industrial manufacturing, energy, finance, transportation, and more.
Hope Freedman is a passionate Purpose practitioner who guides brands to discover, strengthen and activate their social missions to increase consumer loyalty, grow revenue, deepen employee engagement, and positively impact communities. She brings her extensive background in CPG marketing, advertising, and communications – on both client and agency sides – to enhance brand differentiation and consumer engagement from strategy to execution.
Her work ranges from optimization of current CSR programs, resources, and partners to thought leadership initiatives for clients. Hope focused on developing differentiated brand social initiatives through a proven, insight-driven methodology for clients including PepsiCo, Unilever, Edgewell and others as a strategist in Edelman’s global Business + Social Purpose practice (read more ...).
Content creator extraordinaire.