Brendan Eich's recent resignation as CEO of Mozilla may come as a shock to some. The backlash against Eich's appointment, despite the strength of his qualifications as a Mozilla founder and the creator of a prominent programming language, shows how dramatically expectations of corporations have evolved. Companies with a product or message for young people should pay attention.
The relationship used to be simple: a company would supply the product, and a consumer would buy it. Branding magnified the appeal of pure product functionality, and the consumer walked away content that they had purchased something useful.
Driven largely by millennials, this simple dynamic looks increasingly at odds with the direction that consumer culture is taking. Instead, young people (and older people influenced by them) situate consumptive behavior as part of a broader story. Millennials are no longer content to simply buy something useful. They want to know that the company they are supporting lives their values.
Inevitably, this pushes major corporations into uncomfortable territory. Until recently, companies have rarely needed to engage in social debates. The very concept of taking a proactive stand on a potentially divisive issue seems deeply foreign to organizations that are trying to grow their consumer base, not alienate part of it.
But the brave new world of socially engaged, hyper-connected young people fatally undermines this logic. We saw the impact of corporate social ambivalence in the criticism against some of the Sochi Olympics sponsors, and Eich's rapid resignation clarifies it further. Taking proactive stances on important social issues is a major step in overcoming the trust barrier that many millennials have with respect to large corporations, and helps those corporates show up differently.
To compete for millennial dollars, companies need to be sharply attuned to the values and culture of this generation. It is global, inclusive and especially when it comes to marriage deeply attracted to equality. This is particularly true in the tech space, which is famously progressive and has been directly shaped by millennials more than any other industry. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants have publicly embraced marriage equality.
Tech is not alone here. Major consumer brands like Starbucks, as well as financial services organizations such as Citi and Goldman Sachs, have all signed on as supporters of marriage equality. However, this is not to recommend commenting on social issues without a careful analysis. Cheerios and Honey Maid both faced some initial backlash for depicting bi-racial and same-sex families in recent ads, but both brands were rewarded with widespread support when they doubled down and continued their campaigns.
The gap in trust between corporations and government, which Edelman data suggests is historically wide, presents a clear space for major brands to lead on social issues. Companies acting purposefully and honestly for social good should no longer be niche players. It is time for purpose-driven brands to take center stage, and for purpose to have a seat at the strategic table.