CEOs shouldn't shy away from showing they care

If leaders choose the right cause to campaign on, the results can be phenomenal for their brand, business and themselves

by Giles Gibbons
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2016

I really felt for Howard Schultz over the recent 'Starbucks takes on race' debacle. I know he was genuinely moved by recent hotwire events such as the Ferguson riots, and thought that sparking conversations about race in Starbucks stores across America might help - as well as fitting in with the company's desire to 'foster community and conversation'. As he wrote in an internal memo, 'While it is always safer to stand on the sidelines, that is not leadership.'

I know it's always difficult, as a CEO, to put your neck on the line - I've had many a painstaking conversation with other CEOs weighing up the pros and cons over the years. What they dread most is what ended up happening to Schultz - as pundits piled in to criticise the company's 'opportunistic' and 'inappropriate' campaign. Here's a typical example of the response on Twitter: 'Going to Starbucks tomorrow to order a flat white to explain how milk takes all the credit while black bean does all the work. #RaceTogether'.

The conversation comes up because the 'campaigning CEO' remains a compelling model for any leader keen to make his or her mark. Ever since the likes of Anita Roddick showed what could be done by using a combination of personal fire plus company action around an issue to put themselves on the map, leaders have been attracted to this idea. In today's social media-led world, its attractiveness has only increased - as David Jones argues in Who Cares Wins, social media and social responsibility are intrinsically linked, each a catalyst for each other. The upshot being that showing you care is more valuable than ever before.

Company leaders generally start from this perspective - but then counter-arguments roll. Why risk putting your head above the parapet on an issue? Social media can be the enemy as much as the friend - and given it's almost impossible for you and your company to be whiter than white on everything, surely something will come back to bite you?

Maybe it makes more sense to go for the Dave Lewis or Mike Coupe model, they say, head-down, business-focused, no courting of headlines unless they relate directly to strategy, aiming to be remembered for what they did for the company, not what it, under their direction, did for the world.

Or - they go on - maybe I should leave any 'social mission' work to the actual brands. Dove's standing up for 'real women' is still the most cited example - it's not the leader that's taking the stand, it's the brand. It has the connections and touchpoints with the consumer.

So leaders are left in paralysis. There's the powerful attraction of the idea, but it comes with multiple warning signals. I completely understand - it's a very real dilemma. But if a brand, company and CEO all come together around a cause, it can be dynamite for them all - the CEO's personal brand, as well as the social and commercial value of the company.

But it only works if it really does add up. The issue has to make complete sense for the company, which has to be able to make a genuine difference to it. And the leader has to be able to back up the cause with substance. That was the problem with the Starbucks case - the issue seemed to come from nowhere, and its potential contribution felt small and untested.

Contrast that to a better example - Birds Eye and its campaign around food waste. The cause is ideal as the brand offers a genuine solution to it - frozen food is around 50% more waste-efficient than fresh, and using the freezer is an easy way to save food that would otherwise be wasted. The brand's campaign, 'iFreeze', was strongly supported by its then CEO Elio Leoni Sceti, who grabbed it with both hands. It will be interesting to see what happens now that he's moved on, but I think his replacement Stefan Descheemaeker would be wrong to fall to 'not invented here' syndrome. It just does stack up, particularly as food waste moves up the agenda, and because it makes people think afresh about frozen food too.

Another good example is Gucci's global female empowerment programme Chime for Change. Gucci has been supporting women's programmes for many years so the substance is there, and Chime for Change takes it to a new public level. Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek have the commitment. You get the ultimate power triumvirate - the company, brand and CEO (along with a host of celebrities including Beyoncé) taking action on a relevant issue, which they can make a difference around.

So for the model to hang together all of the stars have to line up - the issue, the fit with the business, the depth and uniqueness of the contribution. But when they do, it can be the most powerful proposition out there.

This has been our mantra from the day Steve Hilton and I set up Good Business (and he's gone on to demonstrate the personal power of the passion and cause combination, albeit in another context - but perhaps there isn't much difference now between politics and business).

So I'll continue to provide everyone I speak to with the same counsel. This isn't something to rush into, it's something to think through and plan. But done right, it's worth it.

Giles Gibbons is founder of Good Business, which helps businesses and brands be more progressive. Follow him on Twitter: @GilesGibbons

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