“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“What if my customers say they don’t care?”
This may be the number one question many companies are wrestling with regarding social responsibility and sustainability strategies. And is central to the debate of whether it is possible to achive brand differentiation by infusing sustainable practices into messages directed to customers.
It is easy to appreciate how many companies over the past couple of decades have made significant investments to “stay close” to their customers. Brand attribute ratings. Research departments rebranded as “consumer insights” groups. Tracking studies. Endless focus groups and telephone and on-line surveys. Trend analysis and more. Information is good and many sound business strategy decisions have been based on input on the wants and needs of the customer. But too much information can also lead to an unhealthy paralysis.
So when the research points to data saying that customers don’t care about sustainability—corporate leaders have decisions to make. This is especially true when we are still buffeted by an uncertain economic climate when many people are struggling financially and not in the position to make the sophie’s choice between being able to afford something they need vs. an alternative that may offer a higher degree of sustainability. We acknowledge the cold reality that the economy may be holding back customers’ demanding sustainable behaviors, but beware the “sling shot effect” of how quickly this could change when the economic pressures ease.
This is the inflection point that is the very essence of what it means to be socially responsible. Our way of thinking is that if you can achieve more responsible and sustainable practices (and we acknowledge the practices are not sustainable unless they are profit neutral), you have a moral obligation to do it whether or not your customer says they care. And we further believe it is a social responsiblity to communicate what you are doing in an effort to educate and inspire your customers to not only appreciate what you are doing, but show them how they should alter their own behaviors for everyone’s benefit.
The next level of consumer insights then is to get deeper into the potential of the responsible and healthy relationship between a company and its customers. True innovation, creativity and positive social change rarely relies on permission. It insists on the courage to do what is right and transformative and then to communicate the benefits of the innovation to the audience.
I draw the analogy to our society’s history of struggling with the knowledge that smoking tobacco has devasting health consequences. After the Surgeon General first informed the public of the health hazards of smoking in 1964, it took decades to achieve the broad based awareness, acceptance and change of behaviors (in part because of the addictive nature of the habit). But “responsible steps” were taken: public service campaigns, packaging warning labels, bans of advertising, bans of sale to minors, bans in public venues, legal action and consequently—millions of smokers quit and millions of non-smokers never started. Today, some people still make the choice to smoke and to ignore the health consequences, but they are certainly aware of them. And there is a social stigma that deeply influences healthy behavior for individuals as well as society at large. None of this would have happened without leaders who were willing to stand up and embrace change as the right thing to do.
Fast forward to today. Even if your customers say they don’t care about sustainability, it is your responsibility to drive to achieve necessary sustainable behaviors into your organization because of your knowledge that it is the right thing to do whether or not your customer will applaud you for it. The health and social consequences of NOT doing this is no less dramatic than pretending smoking is good for you. And because it is the right thing to do, it is also imporant to inform your customer of what you are doing and why. Public education is also a social responsibility.
Imagine if all the tools of today’s instantaneous communication – the internet, digital media, global connectivity, social networks – were available in 1964 when the public first learned about the dangers of smoking tobacco. How much more quickly would have behavior change been accelerated? How many millions of lives might have been improved? How much suffering might have been avoided?
We call on all companies to use all the tools and innovation at their disposal to drive sustainable change and communicate the efforts to their customers. Persuade your customers to care, persuade them to take care of themselves and their community. This is how we will achieve necessary change when the clock is ticking.
There are many examples: we are inspired by companies like Wal-mart, Tesco and Kingfisher who are driving meaningful sustainable behaviors into their organizations and then boldly yet honestly communicating what they are doing to their customers and how they should get involved. Don’t wait for permission.