Is education the answer? What responsibility does business have to educate society?

Nov 23rd, 2022

“Why does your brand think it needs to get involved in societal issues?”

This kind of comment has been seen across a million social media posts. The implication? That brands need to be neutral amongst the chaos of society, politics and economics. But how realistic is that expectation, especially in capitalist democracies where it’s all but impossible to untangle commerce, culture, politics and socio-economics? And is this challenge any different today versus the past?

Choose a position… or have it chosen for you

As we move from one period of disruption to another, brands across the globe are trying to navigate some critical reputational challenges. The choice to participate in key societal debates, or remain silent in such matters, has never been harder to make. No longer the comfortable position of corporate neutrality; the reality is that for many brands, if you don’t make a decision about your stance on a matter, someone will make it for you. And in an ever more divergent media landscape, voices that don’t officially represent your brand can quickly become the most prominent in communicating your story.

The question of whether education is the answer is therefore a provocative one in corporate communications. It asks us not only whether brands can change anything through their messaging, but also whether they should (and if so, when and how?).

A starting point in decoding the answer is potentially this: for many years when communications professionals have talked about education, they have really meant telling their own brand story. Over time this has evolved as purpose has filtered onto the corporate radar, albeit often within a limited set of horizons. But just as educational institutions are increasingly abandoning learning by rote, we can expect to see brands taking a more participatory approach, and across a far wider remit than their own commercial footprint.

The beauty of the One Question discussions is that we garner a wide range of perspectives to get somewhere close to an ‘answer’ – and so really this article frames the challenge itself. Let’s start by trying to make sense of what it means for brand to educate, and why they might do it.

‘Corpsumer’ thinking at the heart of society

The “Corpsumer” represents the evolution of a consumer’s consideration & decision-making process. To borrow a quote from our own Chief Strategy Officer, Carreen Winters:

“Bigger than moms and Millennials, this powerful market segment sees right through superficial attempts by brands to simply appear as good corporate citizens. In exchange for brand loyalty, they crave authenticity in a company’s ethos, message, and execution. ‘Goodwashing’ is the new greenwashing, and companies who attempt to dabble in purpose without authenticity do so at their own peril.”

It’s worth starting this conversation with a simple but widely impactful observation: the participation of brands in critical societal issues is not specific to high-profile consumer brands alone. In fact, the notion of a corpsumer has a double relevance in today’s economy, because we’re seeing an increase in audiences who make purchasing decisions based on the corporate behaviours of the brand. At the same time, ‘B2B buyers’ are looking for more than traditionally commercial metrics from their suppliers, including increased focus on ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) commitments and ‘softer’ brand qualities that will appeal to employees and end-consumers.

The stance your organisation takes is of accelerating importance to your own employees, investors, partners, suppliers and customers. Previously ‘hidden’ brands, those locked deep within the supply chain, are beginning to hit the radar as ESG policy frequently demands ethical supply chain management, and employees whistle blow on any out-of-favour practices. Corporate communications professionals have to think about how a story looks told through the eyes of a micro-influencer, as much as in the Boardroom

Though we may not see a narrative on cathode material extraction featuring on the side of a London bus, or in the next Super Bowl halftime show (just yet) – brands that have a stake in that process likely will show up to reach people in new ways. Corpsumers are smart, and quick to make these connections. They’re much, much quicker still at sharing them with the world. Decisions about how a brand participates in society-wide dialogues is therefore now for every comms professional to consider.

Three ways to make sense of brand participation in education

A common question asked within this debate is: “How do I know which conversations my brand should participate in?” The answer to this question is complex. There are some simple patterns of brand behaviour to avoid but getting the right sort of participation for your organization cannot be defined by a cookie-cutter approach. Let’s start with three initial questions:

  1. On which topics should your brand voice an opinion?

If we assessed brand behaviours through a truly human lens, we’d find that many organisations aren’t great conversationalists. This makes it hard to be purposeful or informative, though it’s easy to understand how it happens. The defaults are many – such as making a particular flag your social media icon or sharing a generic and non-committal statement of support that lacks proof of long-term action. While well intentioned, this sort of approach doesn’t tend to add much to the process of change, and it rarely adds to the process of education either.

Here are some factors to help determine whether a topic is one in which your business can and should play a role that adds value.

  • The mission and vision of your organization
  • The sector in which your business operates.
  • The legacy of the business.
  • Your geographical reach.
  • Your future roadmap.
  • The people who lead you today and the people you want to hire tomorrow.
  • The customers who pay the bills.

But the acid test is that any brand looking to meaningfully convey a viewpoint and affect change in the world around it must actually have a tangible commitment to that issue. Ongoing policies, publicly supported employee initiatives, financial investment or core business operations are all examples of such commitment.

  1. How do you manage engagement with your employees and stakeholders?

Education relies on a depth of insight and exchange that moments in time cannot usually communicate. No one earns their degree in a day.

Depending on how contentious the issue at hand is – and in the last couple of years we’ve seen brands trying to navigate their way to a position on COVID-19, social justice issues, Ukraine and Roe vs Wade (amongst others) – your internal communications may become the single most pivotal part of your contribution to any debate.

The reality is that every business is a collective representation of the decisions made within it. Some are small, and some are monumental, but every business must choose how it advertises, the composition of its supply chain, its employment terms, its involvement in lobbying, and a vast range of other actions that have a direct and indirect impact on the societies in which it operates. Historically much of this has been behind closed doors, but for most companies today it’s impossible to assume those doors remain shut. Business strategy, operations, and reputation are all becoming hyper-public as advocacy of purpose supersedes advocacy of employer. In this context, it becomes more relatable that business will have a view on the decisions made within the society in which it operates. These are decisions after all that impact its employees, customers, supply chain and product.

No brand should ever lose sight of the fact that we’re in a socially-driven, micro influencer-turbo charged and disrupted media age – so external commentators can influence brand perception more than you can yourself.

Operating in this kind of pressure cooker, brands don’t have easy decisions to make, and a wide range of factors need to be considered. But If you cannot explain to your own people why you’re involved with an issue then two things occur:

  • The legitimacy of your contribution will be compromised if there are no sustained, and relevant activities happening within your business. This is tough to achieve without the participation of some / all of your stakeholders.
  • Your external communications risk becoming hollow. Anyone touching your brand will find only an absence of commitment to the matter. For today’s socially and sustainability-conscious buyers, that doesn’t cut it.
  1. Can you participate in issues on a sustained basis?

The takeaway message from our initial One Question discussion is that the underpinning of effective communications on brand representation in any issue cannot simply be shiny moments in time. Brands must be careful to avoid undermining a genuine commitment to an issue by acting only through a narrow lens – such as a ‘global XYZ day’ where vast numbers of organisations may be saying similar things. Your communications need to be active across months and years. Companies fare better as a voice that’s always on hand to contribute than one that’s heard when it is convenient.

The debate on a brand’s right and obligation to ‘educate’ rages on. We look forward to presenting our conclusions later in the year.