“How can we trust?” asked Mark Kramer, co-founder of the concept of shared value, in his opening speech of the 2018 APAC Shared Value Summit in Sydney last week. In a time when ethical consumerism is rapidly growing, and trust in our public institutions, banks and media is falling, the question set the tone for the event. The presentations and panels that followed echoed the need for authenticity as businesses create shared value by building social impact into their DNA.
The summit brought together business, investment, government, civil society and academic leaders from around the world to discuss and share the evolution of a concept that seeks to engrain social purpose into business operations, while simultaneously building business value. Speakers included the National Australian Bank, Enel Green Power, IAG and BlackRock.
Steven Spurr, CEO of Edelman (Australia) delivered a insightful presentation on the larger meta-trends of public perception. As presented in the 2018 Trust Barometer, Edelman found that institutional trust is falling, with more than half of Australians believing that government is broken. Public expectations of leadership are moving towards individuals with 65 per cent of Australians now believing that it is CEOs who should take the lead on change, rather than wait for government to impose it. These expectations come with a desire to see real results. Shareholder returns as a short-term driver of business success is increasingly being rejected by the Australian public; 49 per cent say that companies who think only of themselves and profits are bound to fail.
Consumer trust issues may stem from the actions of a few “black sheep” companies that tarnish or destroy the sector’s credibility. Highlighting negative examples such as Volkswagen’s diesel engine emission scandal Kramer stated that “social purpose is the best defence against malfeasance”. In order to build trust, companies must proactively and authentically embrace a social purpose relevant to their brand, and integrate this into its culture. It requires a long term, multi-year approach with sustained internal education and leadership, and requires clear definitions and evaluations of the outcomes being sought.
More than just clear purpose, companies need to clearly and authentically communicate to core audiences. Companies must revise the logic of traditional tactics, communicating impacts as part of an integrated shared value strategy. Kramer’s talk outlined four key audiences each with specific communication considerations to more effectively build consumer trust and support for the business:
- NGOs, government agencies and civil society. The watch dogs of corporations, these audiences do not care for glossy reports, they care about real action and authentic behaviour. “For these groups it’s about discussing the impacts of partnerships; partnerships that you made with them.” says Kramer. This is about engagement via genuine action.
- Investors. Again, this audience does not care for yet another glossy sustainability report. They do not necessarily understand the connection between social impact and bottom lines. It is up to the company to communicate to investors why, and how, the things they are doing for social impact are creating shareholder returns.
- Employees. This audience needs to see that the company has a social purpose. Not just a nice catch phrase, but a social purpose that actually governs decisions. Employees need to know that this social purpose is truly driving the company, and that if they want to get ahead, then they need to demonstrate how they are driving and embodying it.
- Public. We are seeing the benefits fall to the companies who take a bold stand on the issues of our day. A recent example cited by Kramer is that in the wake of prolific school shootings, Walmart has taken a bold stance on the issue where politicians have not. Walmart no longer sells assault rifles, and no longer sells firearms to those under the age of 21. The courage to take a stand on a controversial issue, not just offering a veneer of support, is critically important for authentic dialogue with the public.
Against the backdrop of growing public expectations on leaders, to close the summit Kramer finished with a personal challenge around authenticity. As a way to bring more impact to the world and more meaning into our lives, he asked the leaders of the room to consider the individual commitment to the impact we intend to have. Embodying the change is a great start in creating social impact; impact that consumers are ready and waiting to support.