How to Prepare Your Brand for Inescapable Global Transformations

Margery Kraus, Founder, Executive Chairman, APCO Worldwide

In 2015, the world paid closer attention to significant social changes that transformed the global business landscape. The refugee crisis, terrorist attacks, social justice issues and the recent Paris Climate Conference (COP21) necessitate a renewed dialogue on how organizations can better equip themselves in an era of global uncertainty. 2016 will undoubtedly bring further volatility to the global marketplace and, indeed, to all citizens of the world.

We witnessed the world debate as some nations made the decision to limit their acceptance of Syrian refugees. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump called for the U.S. to close its border to immigrants. The Nov. 13, 2015, attack in Paris renewed fears of terrorism in the west, and the ISIS-inspired shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., aggravated those fears. The topic of climate change has become increasingly substantiated in the wake of COP21, thus encouraging leaders to address their response to these key issues.

While heads of state discuss these events at a political level, businesses are in a unique position to tackle those uncertainties more directly.

In 2015, big brands overwhelmingly supported a myriad of issues and causes. Advertising focused on social justice causes ranging from LGBT rights and acceptance to female empowerment. Big brands featured same-sex couples in their advertisements, gaining viral attention among millennials and our next generation of leaders. Similarly, Procter & Gamble’s #LikeAGirlcampaign gained popularity for redefining gender norms.

Following this trend, communication firms and in-house PR teams can expect corporate and social responsibility to be top of mind for brands. Stakeholders and audiences have more influence over a brand’s reputation than ever. The ability to get information and share opinions in a very public and immediate way require that companies not only say what they mean, but that they mean what they say.

Consumers are paying attention—and they care. They care about where their money goes beyond an immediate transaction. They want and expect corporations to advocate for their interests in the communities in which they live. The companies that get this right understand the concept of purpose beyond profit. The smartest ones approach corporate responsibility as a business imperative, not an exercise in brand building.

The foundation of these successful strategies is rooted in authenticity, not in people pleasing. Sometimes this is difficult, especially as issues become increasingly sensitive and a bit controversial. But there are proactive things organizations can do to better prepare themselves to cut through the noise and navigate the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Take a Clear and Direct Stance: Neglecting to take a clear stance on a popular issue, or treading the middle line, may work for your organization temporarily. However, our research and experience demonstrate that the most effective way to build a respected brand is to establish a culture of purpose beyond profit. Therefore being clear about your values and your purpose is the best and most authentic way to establish loyalty to your company and your products. In 2015, several companies came forward to demonstrate their support for a variety of marginalized groups. After the passing of Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, Salesforce announced that it would allow LGBT employees to relocate from the state, should they feel uncomfortable, and the UPS Foundation used its Relief Link program to improve efficiency in the distribution of goods to refugees.

Find Those Causes That Are Important to Your Stakeholders and for Which You Have Genuine Passion: Increasingly consumers want to know about the companies behind the products they buy. What are their practices? What do the companies stand for? How do they deploy their resources? Identifying those issues and causes that align with your business interests is smart business.

Be ‘Glocal’: As global companies in a global world, it is important to be part of the debates that encircle us. Companies often are in a unique position to be a solutions provider; to find those practical ways to address chronic problems or partner with government to come up with solutions. Companies also understand the importance of customizing global solutions to local markets. Recent examples of this can be seen with the issue of employment and refugees. There can be no more pressing issue at the moment in Europe than the flood of refugees and the need to help these refugees become engaged in the places where they have resettled. In December 2015, German automotive manufacturing company Continental donated €100,000 (roughly $109,000) to Welthungerhilfe and began working with the German Federal Employment Agency to create a program that will enable refugees to enter the labor force. What other innovative solutions are out there where business can make a difference and solve problems?

This year will bring many challenges to overcome. Yet out of every challenge will arise opportunities to engage and contribute to a greater good. We must understand the context for what is happening around us and the differences from culture to culture. Our world will survive only if we have a shared purpose with society. This is not merely a matter of public good, it also is an issue of business survival for the future. If communities and their citizens fail to prosper, there will be an absence of robust markets with consumers and businesses to purchase goods and a lack of a committed labor force to create the goods, reminding us every day of the business case for linking profit and purpose: That there will be no successful company in a failed world.

CONTACT: @MargeryKraus

 This article originally appeared in the January 18, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.