Twitterstorms. We’ve all seen firms deluged by them. Online petitions. We’ve all watched as clicktivists click up their numbers. Whether your data’s anecdotal or empirical, that the frequency and speed of campaigns (effective or otherwise) has increased is unarguable. The ease and low cost of publishing and organising means that companies can quickly find themselves facing a crisis.
Some crises are well deserved, while there are others which companies seem to walk into by accident. The trouble VW is mired in is clearly of its own making. However, Lego has faced a couple of crises in recent times either because of long-standing commercial arrangements or a policy of trying not to get drawn into an issue.
When Lego’s partnership with Shell came under scrutiny, at first the company said it would not bow to campaigners. Then, facing repeated high-profile videos of its famous figures drowning in oil, Lego said that it would not renew its licensing deal with the oil giant. More recently, when the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei approached Lego to secure bricks for a new art installation the company refused, saying it did not get involved in politics (although surely the not getting involved position would’ve been to sell him the bricks?).
No more hiding places
In both incidents, Lego did what most corporations do. It tried not to be drawn into an issue. It took an agnostic approach. Companies do this because they like to stay out of the fray. They prefer to focus on the business of doing business. It has been, until very recently, the sensible option.
There are, however, fewer issues on which agnosticism pays off for companies. As the online conversation becomes more shrill and as it moves more quickly from issue to issue, companies will find agnosticism is not always the route to a quiet life. They will have to take a view and state it.
Environmental campaigners have been at the forefront of forcing corporations to move away from the we-don’t-take-a-view attitude. Every company does something positive when it comes to sustainability. Companies have realised that environmental agnosticism is no longer an option. In Lego’s case, it has discovered this means not only what you do to reduce environmental impact, but also who you partner with.
Other campaigners, particularly those focused on social issues, are making headway too. Whether it be ethical supply chains, diversity or gay marriage, agnosticism isn’t the hiding place it once was. And it’s not just activists, either. David Cameron has called for companies to speak out about the benefits of being in the EU. So there’s political pressure to take a position on big issues.
Moving beyond agnosticism
Brand consultants have long had tools to help companies work out what they stand for. First came ‘values’. Often abstract (and, nowadays, normally dull and identical), developing a set of corporate values was a way to help companies really focus on what they stood for and make day-to-day decisions in a brand-consistent way.
Then along came ‘purpose’. Defining a purpose is a way for companies to formalise how they relate to the communities they serve and society in general. A company’s purpose is usually aspirational and talks about a role that’s wider than generating a profit or making widgets.
Purpose is popular for good reason: companies that know their purpose, whose staff understand and believe in it, have a much clearer understanding of why they do what they do and are more quickly able to make decisions.
These companies will also find it easier to take consistent positions on social and other issues, express those positions clearly and, importantly, defend them and themselves.