Observations by Anne Bahr Thompson
More and more brands are taking on social causes and political agendas and as they do, expectations for business’ role in society are increasing. Brands that have a well-defined purpose naturally align themselves with befitting causes. They help us shape a better future because they know the role they play today and where they want to be. Companies that are clear about how their brand advances society, that integrate sincere practices into their marketing and operations, and that turn ethics into results exemplify good Brand Citizenship. They do well by doing good, and will always be touted as leaders.
These companies know that leadership is tied to ethical character and that leadership brands, which cultivate trust, have the power to unite people of different views, and help customers and employees to feel that they are better versions of themselves.
Virtues are intertwined with leadership.
Virtues form the essence of a leader’s character. A look at the roots of the word help explain why. The word virtue comes from Old French word vert meaning “vigor, moral strength” and Latin virtutem meaning “high character, excellence, courage, bravery. Without a doubt, virtues provide the strength for leaders to act with moral excellence.
So, which virtues characterize leadership today? Based on three-plus years of research into Brand Leadership, Corporate Citizenship, and Favorite Brands - the three elements that together create good Brand Citizenship – through my company Onesixtyfourth’s CultureQ research project, effective leadership is based on seven virtues. Interestingly, the characteristics people point toward when describing ideal leaders in general apply as much to brands as they do political leaders.
- Visionary: inspire people with a clear view on how your company benefits individuals and helps shape society. The cleaning and personal care company SeventhGeneration is considered by many to be the first in the US to build sustainability into its purpose, something it did from its inception. Seventh Generation is focused on making a product that “makes a positive contribution to the world.”
- Courageous: propel your organization forward by taking considered risks that align with purpose and appeal to the cultural need for progress. The Swedish clothing company, H&M took a big risk when it acknowledged the wastefulness and ugliness of fast fashion and the opportunity that exists to minimize through ethical sourcing and recycling at the launch of its 2016 Conscious Exclusive collection. Guests were greeted by unwanted clothes piled to the ceiling. Deliberately designed to provoke thoughtful debate, the exhibit stood in stark contrast to the glamorous Conscious Exclusive collection being launched.
- Sincere: openly share your point of view on the world; if you take a stand on socio-political issues, it must align with your purpose and policies. From in-store samples to supporting the environment, to fair treatment of animals and people in need, Lush, the UK handmade cosmetics company, is a brand that gives to give, not to get.
- Empathic: understand what matters most to your customers and employees, and focus on how you can help or inspire them. Founded by parents, for parents, Plum Organics meets its customers needs through innovative packaging and ingredients. The brand balances food nutrition and variety, two essential elements for healthy early childhood development.
- Transparent: be honest about what you’re doing, and importantly what you are not doing. Although the Swedish furniture brand IKEA is not perfect, it continuously is evolving and raising its standards to reflect changing social values and expectations. From glue in particle board to child labor for manufacturing rugs, IKEA accepts responsibility and develops solutions to problems that arise.
- Efficient: strip out excessive bureaucracy and hierarchy; smaller central management and larger frontline service typically drives relevance for employees and customers. With an online forum sitting at the center of its community, Giffgaff—a mobile virtual network in the UK—outsources its customer service to its customers. Users go to the virtual space for help, posting questions—most of which are answered by other customers within five minutes—rather than contacting a call center.
- Practical: satisfy individual needs first by delivering actionable solutions that give people greater control over their lives, and then move on to better the world. To loyal customers and others, Walmart creates meaningful social value through low prices that make the cost of living and overall quality of life easier. Since 2005, Walmart has also been on a long-term journey to be a more socially responsible and fair company. And although perceptions of the brand aren’t yet all positive, they’ve certainly improved.
With faith in government low, more and more people are looking to business to inspire progress in society. And brands that embody the seven virtues of leadership align purpose with profit empower us to achieve personal excellence by standing for something more.