14/02/2017 09:04 GMT | Updated 15/02/2018 05:12 GMT

How Big Brands Can Become Powerful Social Activists


Image: Pixabay

Donald Trump's immigration order has ignited the social conscience of the business world.

CEOs at Google, Apple, Ford, Amazon, Microsoft, Nike, Netflix and Starbucks front a long list of global business leaders who have stood up and made their voices heard.

The response is not surprising, and should be expected. There has been pressure on big brands for a long time to defend the rights of a global society on whose favour and support they wholly rely.

The difference now is that people don't just want these companies to be socially responsible - they want them to be social activists, too.

Companies have got to keep pace with expectations. The commercial case is pretty clear. More than ever before people want to engage and spend money with brands that do their bit for people and planet. What was once considered a nice side-line programme for business leaders is now an integral part of business strategy.

Given the growing pressure to get it right, you'd think most big brands would be campaigning on important, global issues with real intelligence, energy and impact by now. Sadly that's not the case.

There have been some brilliant campaigns in recent years that have delivered real results - Unilever, Microsoft and Lego all spring to mind. But the truth is that a lot of businesses consistently and painfully miss the mark with their investment in social responsibility. And it's frequently the large and unwieldy CSR teams at the biggest international firms - who should in theory be best placed to have a positive impact - that get it most wrong.

Too often they lose clarity, get caught up in a web of jargon and exaggeration, and pump out the sort of nauseating, confusing or transparent corporate initiatives that feed the appetite of the satirists and cynics.

Big businesses have a huge opportunity - and responsibility - to become some of the world's most powerful social campaigners. In many ways we've never needed them more. Here's my take on what they need to do to get it right.


Tackle existing social problems head on. If you're under fire from environmental campaigners because of your production methods, deal with it. No-one will care about your employee diversity initiative until you do.


Focus on areas where you have an authentic voice, close to your central business activity. People will understand and remember a mineral water brand increasing access to clean drinking water in developing countries. Stray too far from your areas of expertise and your story will lose clarity.


Reputation is driven by action as well as words. Commit resources to enforce tangible change. It's far more compelling to talk about what you're doing, than what society at large 'should do'. Don't get caught up in talking shops.


Act at a scale that is meaningful. If your business turns over hundreds of millions, you won't have an impact or change perceptions of your brand with a £500 investment in a small project that no-one will ever hear about.


You need to tell a clear and compelling story with simple and impactful programmes. Keep it focused, strip out the buzzwords and don't over-intellectualize. If you can't explain it to a ten-year-old in one sentence, it's too complicated.