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"The moment that as an organization you truly embrace collaboration, and even actively pursue it as a way to make your company future-proof, you let the world see the sincerity of your intentions and your decisiveness — and that makes the path to ultimately becoming a 'good' organization credible."
Good news! 2020 is on its way. The year when, according to project Europe 2020, the EU will achieve all kinds of smart, sustainable, inclusive growth targets. But also the year to which many international companies, such as Adidas and Starbucks, have committed themselves when it comes to delivering serious ‘sustainability ideals’.
The world is now so rife with fresh promises with far-off deadlines and long-term goals for a better world - in all sorts of guises and from all kinds of sources – to the point that it’s unrealistic to expect the EU or multinationals to hold themselves to these goals that they formulated a decade ago.
That may seem feeble, but it’s not entirely illogical. Because not only are the times — the climatic conditions, political climate, further digitization and so on — a-changin’ at a rapid pace. In the last few years, as Kate Sarginson (MD at Weber Shandwick UK) recently noted in PR Week, specific sustainability goals have gradually been superseded by brand purpose.
Driven by GenZ, or the ‘purpose generation’, consumers in particular increasingly expect brands to take action. And not in 10 years, but now. They want to see commitment, action, transparency and ambition. They want brands to say, "Hey, we're trying. Not only that, we're actually doing it: check it out. But we’re just not (anyway near) there yet."
In short, today sustainability is less about achieving that long-term goal (when, with everything changing at break-neck speed, no one knows how the world will look five years from now anyway), and more about whether you’re showing progress as a brand. In other words, the road to improvement is currently more important than the end result.
And all this brought to mind the American athlete, Allyson Felix and the video I watched on her (coincidentally?) right before reading PR Week. The reason for the film was that last weekend, 10 months after giving birth to her daughter, Felix won her 12th gold medal at a World Athletics Championships — breaking Usain Bolt’s record. But more importantly, in my humble opinion, she (along with a number of other athletes) went public in May this year about how Nike discriminated against pregnant athletes.
What was going on? Nike, along with other sports brands such as Asics, didn’t provide paid maternity leave to the athletes they sponsored. The New York Times, in which the athlete Alysia Montaño told her story, even used the words "they were penalized by Nike for being pregnant". Remarkable, to say the very least, for a brand that profiles itself so heavily in terms of diversity and equality, with campaigns like What are girls made of? and Dream Crazy.
The good news is that, in the end, Nike changed its course. While I can still feel the bewilderment at Nike's initial response, I now see an opportunity more than anything. An opportunity for organizations to involve their world ('superinfluencers' like Allyson Felix and Alysia Montaño) in the design of their brand, and thereby give substance to their purpose (in the case of Nike: Our purpose is to unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all.)
Progress before deadlines
What I'm trying to say is that companies who decide today that they want to have a fundamental purpose needn’t pursue that quest alone. Collaborating with stakeholders is a fantastic way to walk the path to becoming a socially-engaged organization; because those stakeholders can provide invaluable input, while at the same time communicating your message — and thus having a direct impact.
It does require organizations to be vulnerable because you have to be willing to be very open. And you’ll sometimes need to take risks, like Nike with the pregnant Felix and Montaño. Because yes, there was a chance that they wouldn’t be won back 100%. But what’s more important: saving a few bucks, or fulfilling your purpose and thus growing as a brand and a company?
The moment that as an organization you truly embrace collaboration, and even actively pursue it as a way to make your company future-proof, you let the world see the sincerity of your intentions and your decisiveness — and that makes the path to ultimately becoming a 'good' organization credible.
Plus: be aware that if you don't act properly (you belie your purpose!) and don’t immediately react well if that comes to light, it will damage you. Purpose is not a campaign or a deadline 10 years from now. Purpose is daily progress, the improvements you show now, in real-time. If Nike had immediately said, "Damn it, ladies; you’re absolutely right. We’re going to fix this”, there wouldn’t have been a problem. In fact, it would have worked to their advantage.