Values Wars: CEO outbursts vs. authentic sustainable engagement

Shel Holtz's picture

Companies will compete on their values

In every decade, a lot of businesses thrive because they can deliver what’s scarce. Scarcity is a fundamental economic concept that examines the gap between limited resources and limitless desires. Customers will beat a path to the doors of companies that can deliver whatever they want that’s in short supply.

For the next 10 years, according to business business theorist Geoffrey Moore, authentic sustainable engagement will be the most important scarce commodity.

The notion of authentic sustainable engagement underlies a new report from Brian Solis, Influencer 2.0: The Future of Influencer Marketing. (TopRank Marketing and Traackr produced the research for the report.) In the report, Solis argues that influencer marketing needs to evolve into influencer relationship management. “By consistently connecting relevant influencers (and) useful and interesting content in the right places at the right time, brands earn reciprocity, establish trust, and build loyalty,” he writes.

In other words, the payoff for authentic sustainable engagement with influencers is bigger than the one-time lift from a paid post on Instagram or a short-term influencer campaign.

The principle of authentic sustained engagement isn’t limited to influencer marketing or customer relationship management. Among the vast array of business practices where it fits, leaders should think long and hard about applying the concept to their company values.

The next few years will see a marked increase of companies getting serious about their values. We know from a mountain of research that climate change is the top concern of Millennials, making sustainability a critical value. The Edelman Trust Barometer has been warning us for a couple years that rebuilding trust (currently at depressing lows) means treating employees well and devoting company resources to advancing social change.

Recent days have seen a headlong rush by a cadre of CEOs into social change. It started as a trickle, with a few leaders going public with their opposition to some state legislation that would legalize discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. Since the beginning of the nascent presidency of Donald Trump, though, leaders have been tripping over themselves to take stands against administration policies. Seeing the surging value of companies Trump has attacked, some have even started to crave being called out in a presidential tweet.

Their motivations (as well as those of some conservative leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump policies) are laudable. They may also be misguided. In a recent post, a master of ethically-challenged marketing practices worries that alt-right leaders are using his playbook. Ryan Holiday, author of “Trust Me, I’m Lying,” explains…

Most brands and personalities try to appeal to a wide swath of the population. Niche players and polarizing personalities are only ever going to be interesting to a small subgroup. While this might seem like a disadvantage, it’s actually a huge opportunity: Because it allows them to leverage the dismissals, anger, mockery, and contempt of the population at large as proof of their credibility. Someone like Milo (Yiannopoulos) or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

It’s easy enough to sympathize with the urge CEOs feel to speak out about polarizing policies they believe are contrary to their values. Like a paid Instagram post that Kim Kardashian, holding a bottle of skin care cream, shares with her 40 million-plus followers, these appearances on the political scene are short-term. Truly demonstrating a company’s commitment to social change requires authentic sustainable engagement. Proclaiming your anger or disappointment in a policy is fine (unless it serves as red meat to the very people you loathe). Maintaining a dialogue with customers, partners, suppliers, community leaders, and employees about the values that inform that outrage, however, is where the rubber meets the road.

Establishing and maintaining that engagement requires a strategy and long-term attention. While it’s a lot easier to issue a statement, fire off a tweet, or have your ad agency gin up a TV commercial, leaders should ask themselves which approach is more likely to contribute to real social change.

It’s impossible to understate the importance of organizational values. It won’t be long before brands have to compete on their values. After all, stakeholders are making decisions based on values and if every company’s approach looks the same, no company will stand out. The companies that win will be those who are able to differentiate their commitment and approach to their values. And though CEOs may continue to voice their displeasure at a president’s executive orders or inflammatory tweets, these flare-ups should at least be part of a larger strategy that is baked into the company’s culture rather than a single burst of righteousness.

Having rolled my eyes at the never-ending calls for new officer-level positions for every little thing, I won’t suggest that companies new need Chief Values Officers. We do need to move from meaningless values posted on conference room walls and blasts of CEO indignation to a sustainable, engaged culture that actually moves the needle. That requires somebody’s attention. Whether it’s a Values Center of Excellence, a cross-functional values team, or some other designated leader, department, or group that’s accountable for evolving values beyond the tired old bolt-on programs characteristic of too many Corporate Social Responsibility programs, it’s a step organizations will need to take if they’re going to thrive in the decade when authentic sustained engagement is the scarcest thing people crave.

My webinar on February 23 will provide you with tips and ideas for helping employees through all the turbulence of leaders taking political sides they may or may not agree with. Register here



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