CEOs Must Wrestle Successfully with ‘Purpose’ Challenge

CEOs who are trying to navigate the difficult new paradigm of “corporate purpose” will find valuable information – but not much solace – in the new 2020 Looking Further with Ford Trend Report, the latest version of the automaker’s annual compilation of near-future factors that will impact business and society.

Global consumers are becoming increasingly demanding that brands take a stand on issues but don’t necessarily reward them, in the end, for doing so – and hold them strongly to account if a company disappoints them on the values front, according to Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s global consumer trends and futuring manager, who headed the survey-based report and interpreted its results.

“People want brands to do the right thing, and when they don’t, they want to force [companies’] hands,” Connelly told Chief Executive.

Connelly reached her conclusion on the basis of consumer surveys in 14 major countries for the Ford report. People are asking brands to move from a product-based mindset to a values-based mindset, she said. “Consumers want to know what the product stands for and the virtues behind it,” Connelly said, noting the success of companies including Patagonia, Everlane, Warby Parker and Tom’s Shoes that “got into business by taking a stand on a social issue.”

But such considerations don’t always impact their decision to buy: 59 percent of adults globally said they care more about purchase convenience than brand values. And while consumers want to believe that companies are doing the right things, they need to see behind the curtain to believe it, Connelly said. The survey said that 67 percent of adults globally agree, “Once a brand loses my trust, there is no getting it back.”

And if organizations are “not opting in,” she said, they’re “being forced into conversations that they didn’t raise their hands for.” Connelly pointed to recent controversies over Delta Airlines’ stand on gun rights and the powerful drags created on huge sporting brands as the National Basketball Association dealt with a kerfuffle over a China-related tweet by a team executive and as the National Football League wrestled for three years with the “Take a Knee” meme over the National Anthem.

In taking stands, she said, CEOs “must do it authentically. Because people are going to check. Trust is such a rare thing in the marketplace [and] consumers are going to do their due diligence on brands. They want to know where something is manufactured and where you get the raw materials from.

“This is powerful,” Connelly continued. “And it’s also tied a bit to our ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel’ culture. If you are called to stand and don’t answer right away, you’ll suffer serious backlash in social media. But our survey showed that public shaming in social media has gone too far – many people said it has become toxic.”

Consumers also believe that, if a brand doesn’t do right by them in their view, they can force a company to act in ways that they see as more ethical: 42 percent in the Ford survey agreed they would boycott a brand that doesn’t have values that align with their own. “And when they don’t like you, they’ll also try to actively persuade their friends and families not to like you,” Connelly said.

One big antidote to this dilemma for CEOs, Connelly said, is to take the approach that Ford’s brain trust has and to know where they stand on issues before they’re “called to stand.” She cited as an example the strong advocacy by Ford Executive Chairman William Ford Jr. for sustainability strategies—including an early commitment to electric vehicles, and putting a grass roof on Ford’s truck-manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Michigan—stretching back several years, long before public clamor over climate change. He also pledged the company to the standards laid out in the Paris Accord on Climate Change even though the United States as a nation withdrew from it.

“He’s not taking a political stand but saying, ‘This is what I’ve always believed,’” Connelly said of Ford Jr. “There’s no greenwashing there. It’s been authentically part of who he is.”

Similarly, she said, “CEOs might feel like this has nothing to do with their business. And suddenly there’s an active shooter in one of our stores. It has everything to do with your business. You can’t flinch.”

Here are the other major consumer trends discussed by the Ford report:

• All Alone: Loneliness has become an epidemic of global proportions. Loneliness is particularly prevalent among young people – 62 percent of Gen Zers globally agree with the statement “I feel lonely on a regular basis” and 50 perent agree “I often feel lonely when I’m around other people.”

• Great Expectations: As internet commerce grows, so do expectations for brands. 67 percent of adults globally agree with the statement, “I have higher expectations for brands than I did in the past.”

• The Green Paradox: Worldwide, consumers are increasingly worried about climate change. Yet, that worry isn’t translating into urgency: 64 percent of people who aren’t changing their behavior to help fight climate change say they think they can’t make a difference.

• Identity Matters: Conversations and language around identity are evolving — more specifically, understanding that identities are built from both visible attributes and invisible ones, like gender identity, ancestry, religion and more. Only 67 percent of adults globally say, “I understand the concept of gender fluidity.”

• The Second Time Around: New upcycle companies around the globe have modernized resale shopping. The so-called re-commerce movement is on the rise for sophisticated and market-savvy shoppers, breathing new life into previously owned fashion pieces, appliances, electronics, household items and other goods — and more and more consumers are opting in. Sixty percent of adults globally agree, “I am more open to buying used goods than I was five years ago.”

Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.
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