The New Business Reality: Customers Are Judging You on Your Values

With CEOs’ recent flight from Donald Trump’s advisory boards, there’s no longer any denying it: customers are judging businesses on their values, and they’re only getting more demanding. Sooner or later, everyone is going to have to take stand.

Commentary on the challenges businesses face from rapid-response boycotts, social media shaming and a more expansive view of corporate accountability tends to present the issue as a needle-threading problem: how can a business stay in that safe, narrow space where it isn’t offending, in any way, anyone who might buy from them? The trouble is, that space is gone.

Like it or not, actions express values

Businesses are struggling to deal with a fired-up, activist consumer market—but they don’t realize the rules have changed. I realized this while reading an article about message T-shirts as a fashion trend, which wound up with this nugget from Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing: “It’s not a retailer’s place to push their opinion on the customer. We sell messaged merchandise now, but it’s not pro- or anti-political statements or curse words. If it’s a positive, empowering statement, it’s appropriate for our stores.”

OK, but how do you decide what’s positive and empowering? To me, “Resist” and “Immigrant,” two of the political T-shirt messages noted, are positive and empowering. A decision for or against T-shirts with messages is based on values, and if the store isn’t stating any, customers will assume them—and push their opinions onto the retailers.

Recall what happened when a New Balance spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal, “With President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction”: customers set their shoes on fire and launched a YouTube-powered boycott call. The spokesperson was commenting on Trump’s vow to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which suits New Balance because it manufactures some of its shoes in the U.S., wrote New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, “but good luck trying to communicate such subtleties in the current climate. New Balance suddenly found that its support for American workers—P.R. gold, you would have thought—had led it into contentious territory.”

The new rule: spin is so last century

The thing is, nothing a company does is PR gold if it seems self-serving or incidental. (I’m sure I could unearth dozens of examples of public praise for not much, but that’s not something a company can mine over time.) If New Balance had a recognized commitment to a full slate of socially responsible business principles, and a history of advocating for policies that didn’t directly benefit its bottom line, the enflaming statement might have earned a more careful look and perhaps the benefit of the doubt.

This is the new rule: customers now see all of a company’s comments and actions (or lack of them) as a reflection of its values and, by extension, its politics. Not every customer makes this link, of course, and maybe not even most. But the activist ranks are growing, they are passionate, and they are driving the discussion. They don’t like that T-shirt enough to buy it from a company they think is compromising, say, their civil rights. It’s long been a marketing and branding truism that most people don’t care enough about a company’s values to make values a selling point. Well, now they do.

Sustainable businesses, grab your moment

A new campaign or a few opportunistic moves aren’t going to cut it, either. When companies stake out a strong values position, customers, activists and media will monitor their compliance. Responsibility to those values can’t be optional—they will cut you when you don’t act on them, or if you act on them in a way that’s perceived as purely profit driven.

That’s the risk. But this is also an enormous opportunity for companies built on sustainability principles—B Corps, benefit corporations, social enterprises and other businesses animated by a social or environmental mission and committed to a broad vision of corporate responsibility. Sustainable businesses can authentically lead. They have clearly stated social and environmental values, and live up to them.

If that describes your company, now is the time to get out in front with your story, your values and the vision you’re working toward. Tell it fully. Tell it often. Tell it loud.

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