Millennials are pushing today’s retailers to fully embrace a notion that was first established at least 50 years ago: corporate social responsibility.
Ecommerce leaders need look no farther than some of the biggest and hottest brands, like Allbirds and Patagonia, for examples of how everyone’s favorite retail target, millennials, are propelling brand values toward the top of the list when it comes to deciding where to shop.
In fact, retail’s buzziest target demographic is disrupting industries and verticals every day by demanding that companies proudly display their causes and missions if they want to win millennials’ business.
Mission-oriented branding looks shiny and new, but social awareness in retail isn’t a recent invention. In 1967, the Committee for Economic Development began researching how American social problems might be improved by businesses, especially large, professionally managed corporations. CED’s 61-page report released in 1971 titled Social Responsibilities of Business Corporations broke new ground for the role of business in American society.
The research challenged us to think of how business interests could have a functional role in society on a par with the other citizens of the United States—like acting in good faith and improving the quality of life for all members of the economic ecosystem. The report called out the bedrock of corporate social responsibility:
“Business enterprise is an integral part of our pluralistic society and a full and responsible participant in the national community. This perspective is required to sustain and promote the essential economic functions of business, and to release the full productive and organizational capacities of the corporate for the benefit of society.”
Putting money where their values are
Retail companies’ obsession with sustainable materials, ethical farming and cruelty-free products are a reflection of the market’s demands. A BizWomen report in December 2018 spells it out in clear economic terms: Sustainable product sales have grown 20 percent in the consumer goods products market since 2014, while conventional product sales have dropped. The report also estimates that sustainable products will grow to 25 percent of total store stock in consumer product goods by 2021.
Millennials define their buying habits by their values. BizWomen estimates about 75 percent of millennials shop with the environment in mind, compared to 34 percent of Baby Boomers. Millennials also report a greater willingness to pay more for products with ingredients that are sustainable or socially responsible products.
Sustainability is a lifestyle for millennials. A Fast Company report from February 2019 explores millennial attitudes about sustainability in the workplace. Per a survey cited for the report, 75 percent of workers said they’d be willing to accept a smaller salary to work for a company that’s environmentally responsible.
They’re also demanding transparency and good faith behavior across multiple issues. Forbes published their upcoming trends for CSR in 2018 and identified issues that still need a lot of work, one year later: workplace harassment and inequality, diversity and inclusion and data and privacy protection were among the chief concerns.
More than just a mission statement
Corporations put their best foot forward with their mission statements: lofty, abstract ideals to strive for but ultimately fall short of. They can talk the talk, but walking the walk is another story.
Some of today’s most influential companies became successful by building their brand values:
Ben & Jerry’s: The original CSR success story
Millennials make it look cool, but CSR was a success factor for Ben & Jerry’s from the company’s start. According to their website, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream serves three missions, and has upheld these values after Unilever acquired the company in 2001:
- Product: Using wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the environment
- Economic: Operating the company for sustainable and profitable growth with value for stakeholders plus opportunities for employee development and career growth
- Social: Recognizing the central role that business plays in society and improving the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally
Patagonia: Saying no to toxic corporate culture
Outerwear retailer Patagonia has made headlines for the company’s stance on issues before: namely donating $10 million in tax credits to pro-environment causes and groups. Like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia was an early leader in the CSR space. Since 1985, they’ve supported hundreds of grassroots organizations in all 50 U.S. states fighting to protect public lands at the community level.
Quartz reported on the next cause for Patagonia: ending their policy to supply corporate clients with co-branded Patagonia products if the company feels the clients aren’t ethically aligned with their mission. They’re shifting focus to increase the share of corporate partners that make environmentalism a top priority.
It’s a bold move to thumb your nose at a key demographic for a popular product, but Patagonia has been in the CSR game long enough to understand what they lose by standing up to the toxic image of tech bro culture. They also know what they have to gain by sticking to their values.
Allbirds: Sustainability looks good on you
Allbirds has sold over a million pairs of sneakers since launching in 2016 and is reportedly valued at $1.4 billion. Its customer list boasts names like Barack Obama, Mila Kunis and Leonardo DiCaprio. And they’re opening their first store in China.
Founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger launched their sneaker brand in 2016 with the goal of creating sustainable sneakers with materials like wool, eucalyptus, and sugar. A predominantly plant-based shoe with a high price tag ($95 per pair on Allbirds.com) and simple designs is a risk in a shoe industry that trades on commodity models, oil-based plastic manufacturing and huge markups (Yeezys anyone?).
While Brown and Zwillinger insist they put manufacturing quality, comfort and durability ahead of other product features for their shoes, their focus on sustainability established clear brand values.
The company took it one step further when they launched a Carbon Fund on Earth Day 2019. Their carbon offset program assess how much carbon the company uses throughout its supply chain: including raising the sheep that produce the wool, transporting materials around the world and even the air conditioning in offices. “We’ve decided to impose a carbon tax on ourselves,” says Zwillinger. “We’ve even incorporated how much carbon is used when one of our employees takes the bus to work.”
How to build values into your company brand
Impactful CSR requires proactive management and execution. Companies that bake their values into their brand from the start have the advantage over a company with poorly defined values. Still, it’s possible to hit the reset button and find a CSR model that fits your company. Here are some ways to introduce your values into your brand:
Rebranding: Tell customers who you are
Uber had a tough time when former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after his misconduct (including rampant sexual harassment and verbally attacking his own rideshare driver) became public in early 2017. A social media campaign mounted on #deleteUber and protests at the San Francisco headquarters put pressure on Uber to define its corporate culture: Would they be just another messy tech bro startup, or would they do better?
New CEO Dara Khosrowshahi chose the latter. His mission focused on convincing customers that Uber’s lousy reputation left the building when its former CEO was replaced.
This meant a complete redesign for Uber, including a logo revamp from all-caps UBER to a lower-case version of the word. The old logo was described by Fast Company’s Mark Wilson as “a visual manspread, evoking the members-only corporate club from Uber’s roots as an on-demand black car service for Silicon Valley’s elite.”
Uber still has a lot to prove to stakeholders as they attempt to turn the corner from the toxic culture that defined the company’s rise to success. A rebrand is the most assertive way to signal your values have changed, but it’s also expensive, time consuming and delicate. If you get it wrong, you’ll pay the price in lost trust, customers and revenues.
Hiring practices: Remove problematic people
Poor corporate culture comes from the top. The decisions that mold a company’s outlook come from its least dispensable talent. That doesn’t mean the C-suite is untouchable. When Tesla CEO Elon Musk shook confidence in his company by smoking marijuana during a media interview, the company saw an immediate 7 percent drop in share price.
This, combined with other bizarre behavior from the founder, including running afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission caused the board of directors to remove him from the chair position. He kept his CEO title, but the Tesla’s corporate message clear: not even our founder is not bulletproof, and our image and values are worth more than any one person.
Hiring for executive positions is one of the essential get-rights for any corporation, but it becomes even more important when building or reinforcing successful values.
New or revamped products: Show your work
News about corporate shake-ups and CEO oustings make headlines. But your customers probably can’t name one member of your executive team. Their focus in on your products. You can prove your values through new or revamped products that reflect the changes you’ve implemented toward growing a better culture.
Milk makeup recently announced their makeup and skincare products are now 100 percent vegan. Their messaging explains why the company made the change and explains the difference between vegan and cruelty-free terminology used in the cosmetics and skincare industries. Milk puts forth a powerful brand message about the things they care about: animal welfare, customer satisfaction and transparency—very important in a product category where vegan and cruelty-free attributes are table stakes.
Changing a product or adding a new product line to introduce a shift in values is one of the easiest ways to signal you’re ready to begin a values dialogue with your audience. It’s lower risk than personnel changes and when done well, can provide your company with a wealth of advertising and social media content.
Be the change you want to see
Your brand and your values are one. Poorly defined or non-existent company values show you stand for nothing as a brand, which at best confuses your customers and at worst allows the fallout from corporate scandals and strife to overtake your company messaging. Don’t rely on vague words from a mission statement. Focus on what you can do to bring your mission to life. Or, start from scratch and write a new one. Only you can tell the best story for your brand.