Over the past few decades or so, there has been a rising tide of personal reactions against the idea of big business. In many communities, including mine, we have seen a backlash against big box stores and malls, and a resurgence of interest in downtown, small business shopping. Buy local campaigns are thriving all over, both at the local level, as well as from seemingly unlikely sources, such as American Express’s Shop Small campaign.
In recent years this backlash has been evidenced by the “Occupy” movement, which directed a spotlight on big banks, big corporations, and big box stores, painting them as nothing short of evil. But it seems as though some of these opinions are changing, and in a social media driven digital economy, it might just be “we, the people” who are driving that change.
If we dig deep, it’s not just that we don’t like big business; it’s that we’re suspicious of much of the baggage that seems to come with it. Things like being impersonal, money hungry, cutting corners to increase profit, and not caring about the customer or the environment. All of that goes against the grain for us, and we ascribe those attributes to many businesses, even small ones, until it is proven otherwise. But there are hints that this might be changing. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer places our trust in big business at 58% for the second year in a row, the highest level it has been. And while 58% isn’t a lot, something is clearly happening. I think a big part of this is the new level of access and control that we as individuals have in terms of big business as a result of the internet in general, and social media in particular. (Note: Gallup, who has doing these polls for a lot longer, has big business much lower, yet small business is near the top in terms of trust.)
The layers of middle men are slowly peeling away and we are gaining greater access to the top. Or at least that’s our perception. We now have the means of speaking up and speaking out, in a David and Goliath kind of way. Additionally, and perhaps for the same reason, more big companies are reaching out to do good things, either globally or in their own communities. A Huffington Post article about the Trust Barometer notes that:
A full 84 percent of respondents worldwide even said that they believe businesses can pursue self-interest and profits while also doing good work for society…More and more businesses are beginning to create change, making social responsibility a part of their corporate mission and taking action for the public good.
In other words, one way that businesses can regain the trust of the general public, is by doing good; by doing things that the public perceives as putting others first, ahead of the almighty dollar. Of course, one could argue that such moves are firmly couched in a posture of positive public relations, but doing good is still doing good, regardless of the motive. People and communities benefit.
We’ve seen this sort of thing recently with initiatives from both Panera and Chipotle to become more sustainable and intentional about serving up antibiotic-free, non-GMO products. It’s what CVS is doing by making the commitment, as a health care company, to stop selling tobacco. In all of these cases, they are making a stance, saying that it’s just the right thing to do.
The right thing to do.
Think about that. A far cry from worrying about the short term impact on the bottom line, and the reaction of dollar-conscious shareholders. And yet, it’s an investment in a long-term strategy that is sure to resonate with most of us. Oh, sure, there will always be detractors, who either question corporate motives in these initiatives, or say they aren’t going far enough. But you have to start somewhere. And each step raises the bar for others in the industry. This is the sort of thing ArCompany blogs about here regularly with the Social Justice series: companies doing the right thing.
Social Media and the New Accountability
It’s no coincidence that these changes are happening in the midst of possibly the most important consumer revolution ever, facilitated by the presence of social media. With social media we suddenly have a voice. We can tweet at companies and CEO’s. We can offer praise, or more often, hurl invective, in the direction of a business Facebook page. We can even blog about them and find our critiques in search engine results just above or below a corporate website.
This means businesses need to listen. And whether they are operating out of a genuine desire to be responsive to their customers and the general public, or merely out of a posture of fear, change is necessary. Your customers and the public at large will hold you accountable for your actions as well as your lack of action.
We’ve all seen cases of poor customer service turn into social media nightmares for the businesses in question. It happens all the time with businesses large and small. But it goes beyond that. Consumers want to work with businesses that not only produce good products coupled with great customer service, but they want more. They want to align themselves with businesses who share their ideals, and who they perceive as making the world a better place. And if big businesses, like the ones mentioned above, can make change (and we all know they are slow to change), then it should be even easier for small businesses.
In short, we want our chosen businesses to do what is right, and to be good citizens of our communities. This means paying workers a good living wage and treating them well. It means making an attempt to source as much of our materials and products from reliable, ethical, and perhaps, local sources. Being sustainable and green. Putting the health and welfare of others ahead of profits.
In fact, if you look at how the Edelman research was done, they identify 16 specific attributes, within five performance clusters, that people cite as important. Those specific attributes that fall within the categories of “engagement,” “integrity,” and “purpose” are what we deem important in terms of doing the right thing. In other words, this is important enough to us to make up more than two-thirds of our criteria for what builds trust for us in a business:
This takes time and commitment, and it’s not something that can be faked. I’ve seen companies try to make the claims of being socially responsible, only to have it thrown back in their face. Just because someone or something claims to be “green” or “organic,” doesn’t mean they are. Not all “fair trades” are created equal. The general public can sense in-authenticity and insincerity. It doesn’t take much to set our crap detectors off and leave us wondering, and often a Google search or two can help us sort out the fact from fiction.
So how does a business, particularly a small business, go about making change in very real ways? How can a business do the right thing?
Change comes from the core
Change isn’t just something you do. It’s something that comes from the very core of your business culture. We don’t just decide to go fair trade or non-GMO. We make the hard decision that it is the right thing to do, and regardless of the hurdles, make sure that change is business-wide, and starts from the top. Get everyone on board from the highest paid to the lowest paid. Everyone is a part of any change you make.
Listen to your customers. Solicit their opinions. Find out what it is they really want and need. Discover what issues are important to them, and what they are looking for from the businesses they do business with. Making customers a part of the process can go a long way.
No business can make every change overnight. Prioritize and determine which changes can happen more quickly than others. You’ll probably want to start small. This is why Panera called it “The Hard Road” when they made the decision to go antibiotic free. They knew that change doesn’t come easy or fast, and they needed to manage expectations. When CVS decided to stop selling tobacco, they were lauded by many, while others took to Facebook to lambaste them for not going far enough. If you go slow, and manage expectations, you’ll make the hard road a little easier.
You’re bound to hear some grumbling mixed in with the praise. There’s nothing wrong with saying,
“Hey, we’re trying. We’re a work in progress.”
If you’re honest all along the way, people will be much more understanding. Getting defensive rarely works, and usually does more damage.
In the end, if you really believe in something, and believe it to be the right thing to do, you need to persist and stick to your guns. If you think you are making changes for the betterment of the community, you shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Make no apologies, and don’t buckle under the pressure of the naysayers and trolls.
As use of social media continues to grow and weaves its way seamlessly into our daily routine, consumers are gaining power and a voice. They will use that voice to express their opinions about you, and to you. They now understand that they can hold you accountable for your what you choose to do or not do. It’s your job to listen and do the right thing.
Ken is an Inbound Marketing Certified Professional, after graduating from Inbound Marketing University with honors. He is also a certified Inbound Marketing Educator. He has worked extensively in the radio industry as well as social media. Mueller has a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting as well as graduate work in Mass Communication.
He and his family live in the city of Lancaster, where he can often be found working from his porch.