In Corporate Activism, Authenticity is Key

February 15, 2017
Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship
Professor Aaron Chatterji talks CEO activism with Kevin Trapani of the Redwoods Group and Christopher Miller of Ben & Jerry's

When CEOs speak out on a social or environmental issue, they should stay true to their personal and professional values and not seek simply to strengthen their brand, leaders involved in corporate activism say.

"If we're motivated to do this stuff to burnish our brand, it's now inauthentic," said Kevin Trapani, president and CEO of the Redwoods Group. "If we do this stuff because we care about the outcome and it burnishes or harms our brand, that's the cost of what we chose to do in the first place."

Trapani was speaking to the 2017 Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference at Duke University's Fuqua of Business. The discussion was moderated by Professor Aaron Chatterji, who studied the effect on Apple of its CEO Tim Cook's public stance on LGBT rights and found it reinforced a connection to the brand among customer who agreed with him.

"This is a core strategic issue," Chatterji said. "Every firm is thinking about this now."

The Redwoods Group is an insurer focused on social justice as a means of improving child welfare.

"You have to understand what you care about as a person and the extent to which what you care about as a person is reflected in your organization," Trapani said. "If you're clear about your values, if you spend a lot of time thinking about what you care about and the change you want to see in the world, then the causes you care about will be obvious."

Having a clear identity as a company not only informs your stance can also attract talent with a similar mindset, Trapani said.

"Over time, when you're clear about your values and you act on your values, people who have the same or similar values tend to choose to come to work for your organization and over time they are informed and inspired to act on their values or to help  shape the values of the company," Trapani said.

"We frankly are more progressive today than we were 10 years ago, by an infusion of folks who are smarter and better informed on these issues than we used to be."

Christopher Miller said he has seen an acceleration in companies becoming active in issues outside their traditional scope of direct interest. Miller is senior activism manager at Ben & Jerry's, a famously progressive ice cream maker based in Vermont.

"Part of my role is to be the guy in the room that guides and helps steers the social mission of the company and the issues we should be working on," he said.

Miller said Ben & Jerry's doesn't do traditional cause-related marketing, in which a firm focuses on issues they know their customers care about.

"We start with our progressive values," he said. "We start with what changes we seek to make in the world and then we design campaigns that engage our fans and consumers in our unique corporate voice. People come to us because they love our ice cream, and we hope to engage them in progressive social issues."

One way the company did that was with a focused digital campaign to get its customers to sign a petition calling for binding agreements at the 2015 climate change conference in Paris. Miller said it delivered a better return on investment than traditional paid advertising, reinforced customer association with ben & Jerry's as a socially responsible company, and led 500,000 more people to sign the petition.

"It had a direct impact on sales for the company but it did other things that were really incredible," Miller said. "We could have gotten an ROI from a straight-up Chocolate Fudge Brownie ad, but this was way more impactful, both from a social point of view and from a brand-loyalty point of view."

Miller said data shows consumers who are aware of the company's commitment to environmental and social justice are more than twice as loyal as those who aren't. But the company is also accustomed to feeling a backlash when it takes a stance, such as when it released a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We took a ton of heat for that," he said. "The law enforcement community came down on us incredibly heavily, called for a national boycott of our products."

Trapani also acknowledged there can be a cost involved in being active on societal issues, but said the chance of taking heat is a risk Redwoods is willing to accept in order to be authentic.

"We argue all the time for the marketplace to determine the winners and losers," he said, "and the marketplace of ideas is the marketplace you walk into when you decide to advocate on behalf of one issue over another."

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