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The Right Brand Partnerships Can Do The Right Thing In An Age Of Crisis

Consumers expect companies to lead with their values, but getting the scale required to have a significant impact on global challenges will usually mean partnering for change.

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s recent keynote speech at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference was notable for reasons beyond the usual anticipation of big product announcements. To begin with, for the first time—and for an obvious reason—it was a virtual online-only event, making it accessible to anyone and everyone who wanted to take part.

Perhaps more significant, before going into product news, the conference opened with Cook directly addressing the double crises affecting our global community: the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. ”Our mission has always been to make the world a better place,” he said. “And we’re committed to being a force for change.”  He thanked the healthcare workers around the world for their efforts, and expressed Apple’s solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. “This country was founded on the principles of freedom and equality for all,” he told his audience. “For too many people, and for too long, we haven’t lived up to these ideas. This means taking action.”

In Apple’s case, action—doing the right thing at this time in history—is a $100 million commitment to a new racial equality and justice initiative that will challenge “systemic barriers that limit opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice.” In other words, Apple has pledged to devote major resources to diversifying its workforce. Not only does this set an example for other organizations, but makes clear the increasing leadership role companies are taking to tackle social, cultural and healthcare issues beyond short-term philanthropic marketing initiatives. These major, sustainable actions are all in the name of doing the right thing.

Why now? As we live through this period of dramatic social, political and economic upheaval, consumers are being forced to look beyond traditional institutions to help them make sense of this confusing environment. As such, they are turning to brands and organizations that reinforce their values and that are taking action in support of these values. While Apple is big enough to act alone by virtue of its far-reaching ecosystem, other companies are achieving the scale required to have a significant impact on global challenges by partnering with relevant nonprofit organizations. Brands without the scale and scope of an Apple have a unique opportunity to develop meaningful partnerships with the nonprofit sector. Ideally, actors from different sectors can come together to drive real change, working in service of a common goal that they can only achieve together. Developing mutually beneficial and long-lasting partnerships, however, requires careful consideration of both the purpose and the nature of the partnership.

That brands are being asked to take real action, not just make a donation or undertake a public relations effort is critical to success. As such, they need to follow these four key principles:

1. Take Action: Taking out an advertisement in The New York Times to announce a partnership is no longer sufficient. Consumers and employees want meaningful effort by a brand to solve a problem beyond mere advertising.

2. Create Mutual Benefit: The brand needs to develop a relationship with the nonprofit which is collaborative and mission-driven, not transactional. Stakeholders want to see that a real partnership is being established where the non-profit is an equal beneficiary. Ideally, the values of the two organizations align so closely that the mutual benefit is natural.

3. Encourage Involvement: From the beginning, the partnership needs to involve more than just the CEOs. In a time of empowered employees, the brand should harness that institutional energy to provide increased benefits to the non-profit, as well as to make employees ambassadors of the initiative and the brand’s values.

4. Plan for the Future Now: Brands need to enter into a partnership with the expectation that they will work with the non-profit for an extended period of time. Too many brands have made short-term deals which do not provide valuable benefits that a long relationship will provide.

A great example of a brand which took action and developed such a partnership is the longstanding relationship between Johnson & Johnson and the Save the Children Fund, a 100-year old NGO that operates in over 120 countries and is focused on helping children lead healthier, happier lives. The two organizations have been working together for more than 20 years. Much of the reason for that is that Johnson & Johnson was very careful to find a respected nonprofit which shared the same mission, vision and values as the company. Their shared vision is “a world where no child dies from preventable causes and every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential.” This was refined in 2014 by Johnson & Johnson to “improve the survival and healthy development of children under age 5, especially newborns.” A key factor in this partnership’s success is that beyond monetary support, Johnson & Johnson offered advocacy leadership, in-kind donations, cause marketing and employee engagement. The two entities have successfully leveraged each other’s expertise, reach and influence to achieve mutual benefits of which reputational enhancement is one. Again, both entered the partnership with the long view, after careful research and a comprehensive commitment by both organizations.

Although the recent crises have accelerated the importance of the private-nonprofit partnerships, these kinds of relationships are also the result of several longer-term trends. The Business Roundtable, for example, has recently advocated a shift in corporate priorities: to serve all stakeholders (such as their communities and employees) rather than merely a brand’s shareholders. In this spirit, public-private partnerships allow for value-signaling to important audiences. Similarly, the rise in the empowered employee and the socially-conscious consumer have expanded the expectations of the brands’ values and conduct. Technology has also increased brand transparency, making it important for a brand to select partners carefully. Finally, as implied above, the decline of trust in government has led people to increasingly look to brands to improve society, advocating communal values and taking actions in addition to providing products and services.

Brand success has always been predicated on being able to understand and meet critical consumer needs in a relevant way. That brands must now add advocacy for societal change to their stable of relevant products and services is part of our new reality. Being able to take this on as a solo act, as Apple is doing, is a privilege. Creating a mutually beneficial partnership, however, is of equal and critical value. The right brand partnerships can definitely do the right thing in this unprecedented age of crises. More than making a good product, all brands today are expected to truly contribute to the greater good.


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