5 Reasons Your Company's "Good" Should be Part of Your Core Business
Frederick Buechner asked: “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” This is a great question to pose when searching for personal purpose, but it also applies to brands and companies. Said another way from a business lens:
“At what points do our core competencies meet the world’s deep need?”
There is growing pressure on businesses to have a positive social and environmental impact. Consumers are voting with their wallets and their employment decisions for companies that serve society in addition to their bottom line. Governments continue to legislate on issues such as the environment, privacy, ingredients, and worker rights. Even in the investment community we see a call for businesses with purpose.
A common approach to address this call for action is to continue business as usual, and identify a separate set of social responsibility or environmental cause programs, establish a charitable giving program, or advocate for popular political point of view. While these approaches have merit in certain circumstances, they often ignore the most significant contribution a company can make to society—through its core business.
While it may seem obvious that the positive social and environmental impact a company has should be connected to its core business, I have seen many companies and brands invest in efforts that are not strategically tied to their products or operations. This Colbert Report clip (starting at 1:15) parodies the causes corporations support that seem disconnected from their business. At best it’s a missed opportunity for social and business impact, at worst it invites criticism of hypocrisy and sometimes backlash.
Here are 4 reasons we should focus a company’s “doing good” on the core business:
1) It’s Authentic
In an age of corporate distrust, where some consumers expect that companies are trying to get a quick win through a “do good” gimmick, helping through your core business is an intuitive fit. UPS donates shipping and logistics expertise during natural disasters. PetSmart promotes adoption of pets. Marriott trains employees to watch for signs of human trafficking in their hotel rooms.
Everlane, an e-commerce fashion brand, has made “ethical sourcing” part of its tagline. In an industry known for sourcing low wage labor in developing countries, Everlane shares the factory name where each item is produced, with extensive information and photos on each facility.
On the flip side, many brands “go pink” during October in support of Breast Cancer. While raising money to support research for this disease is a noble cause, it’s easy to question brands’ motivations that have nothing to do with women or health.
Many companies are also taking political stances that don’t have a clear connection to their business. While leadership might feel they have a moral obligation to support a particular issue, I wonder if their voice is best used in that way or could rather advocate for needed change in their own industry.
2) It Motivates Employees
Much research has been done on the best ways to motivate employees, with growing evidence showing that the external motivators of bonuses and perks can be short-lived. Daniel Pink argues in his book Drive that the three most important motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He defines the purpose as, “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”
In order to successfully give employees a sense of purpose, it has to be about their core work. This is not something that an annual employee volunteering day or the existence of a separate corporate foundation run by a couple employees can deliver. Each employee must understand how their daily work helps contribute to something meaningful and valuable.
A simple way companies can elevate the value of their core business with employees is through skills-based volunteering. Many firms such as IBM, Fidelity, and Deloitte, donate technology expertise and consulting services to nonprofits or communities who could never otherwise afford them. One of the biggest reasons these organizations continue such programs is not the social impact, it’s the leadership development the programs create for employees who participate.
Creative agencies often take pro bono work for nonprofits to help with issue advocacy and fundraising. When employees are doing their primary job in service of an under-resourced population, it creates a greater sense of purpose for their work. In turn, companies see higher employee satisfaction and higher retention. A friend who owns a small business told me he has approximately 2X longer employee retention because of his skills-based pro bono program. It works for the community and for his business.
3) It Builds Reputation and Loyalty Among Customers
Any buyer of TOMS shoes or Warby Parker eyewear knows that part of their purchase helps provide footwear and eyeglasses, respectively, to people in developing countries. These brands have been built around a business model that provides the same benefit to paying customers as those in need.
For 30 years, Annie’s has sold organic food, backed by a company mission of helping grow the volume of organic crops farmed nationally. Patagonia, a brand that stands for experiencing the rugged outdoors, has innovated with more responsible sourcing for over two decades, and products today are produced from nearly 70% recycled or renewable fiber. For four years, REI has shut its doors on Black Friday to give employees and customers a chance to #optoutside.
Each of these brands have a devoted following because they have remained committed to their core mission. Importantly, the brands’ product offerings and company actions seamlessly integrate product benefits with “doing good,” making the two inseparable.
According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, 64% of consumers self-report as “belief-driven” buyers, expressing both hope and confidence that brands can address society’s social ills. But the brands that do this most effectively are those that integrate their beliefs and social good into the core strategy and identity of the brand.
4) It Does the Greatest Good
While the prior three reasons might seem to serve the company’s self-interest, the final one is about social interest. Companies are uniquely positioned to use their own innovation and expertise to solve social problems that only they or their industry can address. I would argue the pharmaceutical industry’s greatest contribution to society’s challenges isn't what their cash can do, it’s their drugs to populations that can’t afford them.
The recent announcement of P&G, Nestlé, Unilever, Pepsi and others to partner on Loop, an e-commerce delivery service with reusable packaging, demonstrates a significant effort to address the massive issue of single-use plastic waste around the world. These are problems that the industry itself played a large part in creating. Many would say that they have a responsibility to solve, but they also might be the best ones to help solve.
There are many companies making important progress in integrating social impact into their core business strategy. However, even the prevailing concept of “giving back” assumes that business has “taken” something. My hope is that we continue turn our efforts of giving back to our core business, so that eventually business itself can be seen as “giving” through its primary goods, services and operations.
Importantly, this is not a selfless exercise on behalf of companies. What works for society also must work for business, as they too must benefit from their efforts. The exciting part is that GOOD business is also good BUSINESS.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by Anne Oudersluys on 1/31/19.