Like the Digital Revolution, Brands Need to Claim Responsibility for Decisions or Be Left Behind

It’s a necessity, otherwise they could go the way of Kraft Heinz

a pink background; a line graph is drawn in the middle of the background; a cartoon character hangs from the corner of the graph; from the persons other hand hangs the Kraft Heinz logo
Kraft Heinz saw a drop in stock, which some attribute to their reluctance to adapt to changing consumer preferences. Getty Images, Kraft Heinz
Headshot of Luc Wise

The great social disruption is not around the corner—it’s already here.

Kraft Heinz became Exhibit A when its share price plunged almost 28%, on top of a total 60% drop over the past two years. We’re talking about a company that owns some of the world’s most cherished brands, so iconic that Andy Warhol turned one of them into a work of art.

Even the biggest brands are not safe from the pressure to change for good that is about to be put on them by consumers.

Although several things went wrong at Kraft Heinz, CNN Business summed up one of the most significant. “Many were quick to point out that the biggest problem for Kraft Heinz, the maker of Jell-O and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, is that the company hasn’t adapted to changing consumer tastes. There’s a growing interest in healthier and organic food as opposed to processed cheese and lunch meat.”

In recent decades, our focus has been on digital disruption, the “Uberization” of goods and services, as it’s been called. But social disruption is likely to have as great an impact—if not a greater one—on the way brands and businesses function. Consumers are asking tough questions about how companies influence what we eat, how we live and the very air that we breathe.

Brands today may need societal evangelists even more than they need digital ones.

Many people don’t like the answers, and they’re taking action. Innovate or perish, we told clients confronting the digital future. Now we must tell them the same thing as they confront the future of society. Brands today may need societal evangelists even more than they need digital ones.

Here’s another piece of evidence: utilize Yuka. You may have heard of this app, which has been downloaded more than six million times in France alone. It enables consumers to scan the barcodes of food and beauty products, and then, thanks to a collaboration with the databases Open Food Facts and Open Beauty Facts, see exactly what’s inside them. The app gives a rating from bad to excellent and suggests alternatives. Similar apps are springing up around the world (GoodGuide, Think Dirty, Moralscore) as people strive to consume healthily, ethically and sustainably.

These apps put brands in a scary new place. They’re stripped bare, and no amount of advertising will disguise their flaws. Genuine, permanent improvements will be required. Otherwise, their future looks ketchup-shaped.

Uber, the poster child of disruption, has had problems, too, facing accusations of various unethical practices. The negativity around the brand led to the #DeleteUber outcry on social media, the departure of founder Travis Kalanick and the loss in September of its license to operate in London. The latter is central to my argument because it illustrates a simple truth: being bad is bad for business.

Very soon there will only be two kinds of brands: those who acknowledge their responsibilities and those who do not. The second type are more likely to fall victim to social disruption, forcing them to change radically or be wiped from history.

So, what can you as a brand do to avoid this fate? First, you must acknowledge that this doesn’t just happen to others. When more than 60% of consumers say they would like brands to drive social change, that probably includes your brand. And when consumers say they wouldn’t miss 75% of all brands if they disappeared, that probably means your brand, too.

Being fully conscious of the danger is the first step to finding the right answers.

Often, the building blocks of a more responsible approach are inherent in your business but have been overlooked in the heedless rush for growth and profits. Sometimes you need to look into the history books. What kind of values were held by your company’s founders, and how could they be expressed today in a meaningful way? Or the solution may lie closer to hand. What are your own personal values and those of your colleagues and employees? What causes might those lead you to support?

It may be that your own product or service is the solution. Airbnb famously positioned itself as a way of opening people up to different cultures by encouraging them to live within communities rather than simply visiting them.

As part of the process, it’s important not only to listen to consumers but to get them involved. Seek their advice, co-create with them, bring to life the products and services that reflect their values and convictions. Collaborate rather than simply communicate.

It’s almost impossible to address the responsibility revolution alone. Partner with NGOs, nonprofit organizations and think-tanks to better understand how your brand could play a more responsible role in society. Develop not just open innovation but an open company that’s capable of integrating the challenges our world faces.

To survive or even thrive in this new environment, businesses must take a close look at how they operate. They must develop a deep, real and sincere mission for change, put it at the heart of their company and then communicate it with respect and humility.

This is no longer optional. It’s mandatory. Like the digital revolution, the responsibility revolution is inevitable.

Luc Wise is a co-founder of The Good Company.