Stand up and say something — or others will

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It is, perhaps, one of the most divisive issues of our time. And yet, when Amy Smith, chief giving officer of TOMS, brought up her company’s nascent efforts to reduce gun violence, she was met with applause. It wasn’t so much the issue at hand: It was that TOMS, as a mission-driven organization, had already proven its willingness to enter humbly into a space, be willing to make mistakes and own up and learn from them when it happens.

“I’m all about making a mistake,” Smith said. “I just want to make a new one. I don’t want to make the same one someone else has made or make the same mistake again.”

Smith spoke as part of “The Anatomy of a Mission-Driven Organization” at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show. The free-flowing panel, helmed by Jeff Beer, senior staff editor at Fast Company, also featured Jostein Solheim, head of Unilever’s North American foods and refreshment division and former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, and Stephanie Buscemi, executive vice president and CMO of Salesforce. They began with an explanation of what it means to be a mission-driven organization in the first place, and then covered the basics of what it looks like to walk it daily.

Unilever sells more than 2 billion products every day in the food and refreshment, home care and beauty and personal care markets. Its purpose and mission reach back to the 1890s, when William Hesketh Lever developed a revolutionary soap to promote cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England. The ideas of fostering health and sustainability continue to guide the company, Solheim said, and impact strategies such as sourcing, footprint and farming.

“You sort of take a stand whether you like it or not,” he said. When there is an issue that’s important in society and a company chooses not to speak up or act, “You are acting. You are choosing.” With large companies in particular, he said, employees may be the ones saying, “Hey, speak up!”

If and when that happens, those employees won’t be alone. According to recent research from Edelman, 64 percent of consumers worldwide will now choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on social and political issues. In addition, 60 percent believe brands should make it easier to know its values and position on important issues at the point of sale.

“The landscape, from a consumer perspective, is really changing, and I think we all need to pay attention,” Smith said.

PREVENTING MISSTEPS

It’s important to note that even though consumers are paying attention, they’re not expecting brands to be perfect. What they do want is transparency when errors inevitably are made. Buscemi talked about the importance of inclusive marketing, and said all companies that work with Salesforce go through a related program.

“You’re less likely to run into those missteps when you have an inclusive group at the table,” she said. “How can we make a decision for our customers and our consumers who are diverse and multicultural with a homogeneous bunch sitting here in the room?” Inclusivity can also help when it comes to context and tone; Salesforce realized, for example, that it perpetuates stereotypes when it uses images of a man hovering over a woman at a keyboard.

With TOMS — which provides shoes, eyewear, water and more through a buy-one-product-help-one-person-in-need model — Smith has recognized the need to hire people with expertise in whatever space the company is going into. The company also commits to its impact goal with the same veracity and energy as it commits to its bottom-line goals.

“And then we listen to the critics,” Smith said. “We ask to sit down with them and ask to understand their point of view, and then we try to learn and adjust, learn and adjust, learn and adjust.”

A NEW SET OF METRICS

The panelists agreed that in the future, the overlap between for-profit and nonprofit will become much more blurred; partnerships that previously seemed unimaginable might become commonplace.

“But I also believe we will get to a tipping point,” Buscemi said. And with that tipping point will come “a new set of metrics that companies run by.”

“You can’t just have a good product and say, ‘That’s my mission,’” Solheim said. “You have to do and live a mission beyond your very narrow commercial interests. You have to aim to do something bigger than just selling more products.”

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