I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jim Estill as a guest on my new pet-project YouTube channel – BIYF Marketing. I met him at the Globe and Mail small business summit several weeks back and was impressed! Not because of his success, or his evident intelligence; it was his decency and the obvious pleasure he seemed to take in teaching and mentoring a younger generation of entrepreneurs.
As Jim mentioned during our interview, one of the first things he teaches his staff is “do the right thing”. I’ve been a long proponent of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR). Since the very beginning of my career, I’ve held the belief that “doing good is good for business”, and I wanted to recap the history of my thinking on this subject and why I think it’s even truer today.
It started back in 1999! I got a really cool job, first as the Event Coordinator and in short-order, Marketing Manager for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Canada. My job was essentially to execute their social mission.
Some years after that I was hired by Ethics.CA and the Conference Board of Canada to research and help write “The Business Case for Social Responsibility”. In those days there really wasn’t much on the internet, so this involved a lot of time at the library reading academic papers and interviewing business leaders and “ethical fund managers” which was a pretty new thing at the time. Shortly after that, I was interviewed by Bob Willard for his book “The Next Sustainability Wave”.
To be honest, the evidence at the time was fairly neutral. Those funds certainly performed well, but there wasn’t a clear-cut case demonstrating that CSR was better for business. All that could be stated with certainty was that it certainly didn’t hurt business and may have long-term benefits to the bottom-line if done right. First-mover companies like Ben & Jerry’s certainly obtained strong brand affinity for their efforts, but they also suffered from some bureaucratic overload sustaining their social mission. And some companies like The Body Shop ultimately took a hit to their brand when people started pointing out that there was a lot more virtue signaling than concrete action. One piece of data struck me; despite the altruism of youth and the frequent cynicism expressed by young people towards big-business and rich people, there was clear evidence that young workers were much more likely to behave unethically than their older peers. It seems that young people are frequently willing to cut corners in order to advance their careers, while older employees had learned; it simply isn’t worth the risk in the long-term.
That’s a pretty long background story, so let me jump to my thoughts/conclusions on this subject:
1) Don’t assume the successful and wealthy are some kind of greedy, money-hoarding insider’s club out to “screw the little guy”. As I mentioned above, it’s more likely the young kid you should be looking out for.
2) Don’t talk about it, just do it! – The more you virtue-signal about the good deeds your business does, the more people will consider that a core brand value; not that it’s a bad core value to have, but because customers will then hold that as an expectation of the brand, and this can lead to a fulfillment quagmire and a heightened mindfulness for transgressions.
3) Have faith in the long-term – By simply doing it and not talking about it per the point above, over time, this will become part of your brand identity. Why? Because “people talk”; your brand is built on what others say about you much more than what you say about yourself.
4) If the evidence was neutral back then, I suspect it’s much clearer today, and not just because of the growing number of “do-good” success stories, but the exploding number of “did-bad” catastrophes that have destroyed a brand’s reputation overnight. In a world of social media, the “people talk” phenomenon accelerates exponentially.