Global Forum Workshop Explores Brands’ Challenges & Opportunities for Flourishing in the Future

Global Forum Workshop Explores Brands’ Challenges & Opportunities for Flourishing in the Future

Flourish & Prosper: The Third Global Forum for Business as an Agent of World Benefit started Oct. 15 in Cleveland, Ohio with a full day of plenaries, CEO panels, and afternoon workshops. The conference’s aim is to move beyond how social responsibility and sustainability are thought of today, to a new mindset of “full-spectrum flourishing” and profitability.

At one of the conference’s afternoon workshops, WeFirst CEO Simon Mainwaring explored the branding challenges facing companies today from societal, technological and global upheavals, as well as the opportunities to adapt for a “flourishing” future.

He started by telling the story of how he was inspired by Bill Gates’ 2008 “Creative Capitalism” speech at the World Economic Forum. Gates called on business to help solve the world’s problems alongside government and philanthropy, by making “doing good” a part of how they do business.

Today, everyone with a computer in their hand now has the power to reach literally millions of people with a post, tweet, or photo. And as well, this access to information has created a generation of increasingly media savvy customers. “Social activism can rally likeminded people to either support or demonize your brand,” Mainwaring said. Mobile activism is on the rise, with apps like Buycott that let customers vote with their spending to support or reject brands and causes.

But reality is, says Mainwaring, “Consumers want a better world, not a better widget.” They’re looking to brands and asking “Are you part of the problem or the solution?” This thesis is backed up by consumer “preference for purpose” research by Edelman and others.

Mainwaring said that many companies didn’t want to necessarily want to talk about all the good things they were doing. But the world has changed. Consumers actively want brands to tell them what they’re doing to contribute to a better world.

“So the bar is raised and it’s no longer enough to have a good product—companies need to have a purpose as well,” he said.

The most iconic brands of the future will be those with the greatest social impact. More and more, leading brands that have been known for creativity are now leading with their corporate purpose.

Mainwaring offered advice for companies to start with their purpose and asking, “What’s the right thing to do? Does it tie into what our customers want?” And then, from there, to ask “How do we do it in a way that’s profitable?”

Brands that answer all these question are then able to distill their purpose down to one core property, like Coke’s “Open Happiness”, Starbuck’s “Shared Planet” and Nike’s “Better world.”

Another key takeaway from the discussion was that leading brands think of themselves as the celebrator, not the celebrity, of their customer community. An iconic example is Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign that celebrates everyday athletes.

An intriguing development is how purpose-led brands are using social media and customer relationships to lead social conversations that align with their company purpose and values. One example is Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, who expressed the company’s support for same-sex marriage at a 2013 shareholder meeting. Chiptole has steered a national conversation about food and how it’s made with viral videos like The Scarecrow. And of course, Patagonia’s iconic 2011 Black Friday “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign that opened conversations about consumption and responsible purchasing.

Mainwaring also cited Tesla as an example of how far a brand can go to live from a purpose with CEO Elon Musk’s commitment to break away from fossil fuels. Musk’s company is doing that by making electric cars and unlocking Tesla’s patents to speed up production and adoption across the industry. So in that sense, Tesla is a “mission with a business,” instead of the other way around.

One of the morning’s CEO panelists, Chris Killingstad , president and CEO of Tennant, was at the workshop. He offered his perspective on leading from his company’s brand values of creating a cleaner, safer, healthier world. Tennant makes chemical-free indoor and outdoor cleaning solutions that use 70% less water, are environmentally inert, and drastically reduce workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

But it’s not always an easy sell with the pressures of quarterly earnings expectations. “Investors increasingly get that we’re running the enterprise of the future, but they say we’re are only going to give it so much time.” And he added, “you’ve got to have courage” to keep leading from an unshakable commitment to a company’s values and doing work that’s good for the world as well as the bottom line.

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