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Innovation and the Politics of Brands Recap

By BurkeyBelser
October 20, 2017
Innovation and the Politics of Brands Recap

Recently, I moderated a panel at DC’s AdWeek on what proved to be an untouchable topic. In fact, in the end, not a single one of the panelists really wanted to embrace that hot potato that was, truth be told, completely understandable. Here’s the issue in a nutshell:

46% of executives from large companies around the world prefer that companies speak out on issues such as climate change, gun control, immigration and LGBTQ rights. Should your company or institution speak out when it hears or sees moments that offend our core values?

If our panel was any measure of sentiment in the business community, the clear feeling was that politics and business don’t mix. Individuals on the panel were more than willing to speak out on issues that dovetailed with their company’s interests. Patagonia (not on our panel) is a good example. The company recently ran its one and only ad when Trump declared all federal lands to be up for review and potential industry exploitation. Patagonia, frankly, takes no risk at all by standing with its customer base of hikers and campers. Scott Martin, former CMO of Phillips Lighting who was on our panel, would certainly concur with the Patagonia strategy. Phillips talks about “light poverty” around the world. Wiring the unlit portions of the planet would only be in the company’s best interests. Scott did not talk about (he wasn’t asked) what might happen if the installation of electricity resulted in despoliation of otherwise untrammeled wilderness.

In other words, companies will be bold when it costs them nothing in revenue, reputation or loss of stock value. That takes no courage at all.

I had hoped to direct the conversation toward this question: when moral sensibility is so offended that silence seems immoral, who will speak up then?  Remember Edmund Burke who said the triumph of evil requires only that good men do nothing. This is no political screed, but our President has actually said these things:

“Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.”

Does this offend our nation’s bedrock values of freedom of the press? Does the base of the Statue of Liberty say “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to be free.”? When a CEO hears Trump, should he speak out?

Again: “Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man—he made a good decision.”

Does this offend you as a person, not just a woman? And as a father and a mother? Isn’t gender equality written into the law? Gay or straight? When a CEO hears this, should she speak out?

Again: “For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 -year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad.”

The disabled are a protected class for good reason. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say “we hold these truths that all men are created equal.” Doesn’t common decency recoil at the President’s behavior?

I don’t need to pick on President Trump. I could mosey over to Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. Bad behavior shows up everywhere but that is exactly the point. When bad behavior shows up, we stand up to it, right? Bad behavior in private might result in a punch in the nose. But this conversation was about public behavior, public at the highest levels. Should CEOs stand up at risk to their companies and say, “Stop!”?

Our informal poll of the audience showed no companies had values statements that explicitly addressed these issues. Most were content to call for excellence of product or service as well as service excellence to customers. Perhaps it is too much to ask. General Electric is not a church and even if Jack Welch thought he stepped down off the mountain with tablets, the company’s value statement says nothing about this set of values.

One reason CEOs might not want to join the conversation when it gets heated? It risks further balkanization of the country. The New York Times tells us the “nation has split into political tribes. The culture wars are back, waged over transgender rights and immigration.”  But in the same article, the Times notes that “in this turbulence, a surprising group is testing its moral voice forcefully: CEOs.”

In truth, we never got the conversation started although our panelists were intelligent, insightful, thoughtful and well-spoken. Speaking outloud on charged topics is risky business, a risk it seems few are willing to take. But these are questions you should ask yourself. Where is my line in the sand? At what point does my silence scream louder than the loud complaint of those who endure bad behavior?