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Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others

As the Covid pandemic moves into the inevitable economic crisis, the world is hitting the reset button across numerous areas. I have written a few times about the UK’s data-driven obesity strategy and Boris Johnson re-setting his libertarian instincts to become interventionist after his personal brush with the virus. The resulting ‘Better Health’ campaign takes a soft-ish, empowering approach with the public. However, it talks tough to manufacturers by threatening further regulatory action ‘if results are not seen’. This will be a major concern to them as the already announced advertising and promotion restrictions cover only the first pages of the Public Health community’s regulatory playbook. Think-tank Demos today published a report (‘Turning the Tables’) that shows the rest of the way.

But aside from pressure for change there is also incentive.

The global, Covid-driven shake-up has created a major opportunity to pivot away from entrenched, non-future proof positions. In July, Eastman Kodak’s share price rocketed from $3 to $33 in 48 hours on a single decision to enter the US generic drugs market helped by a $765 million government loan. If successful, the move could lay to rest its unhelpful reputation as the company that blinked and missed the digital photography revolution.

The Covid crisis is not the only pivoting opportunity. We are living through the Black Lives Matters race discussion and last year the global climate debate accelerated. Every year appears to have a theme.

The theme of 2018 was #metoo, prompting Gillette to make a major pivot. It launched an online ad to discuss toxic masculinity with its male consumers, prompting strong reactions for and against. On balance, its sales appear unaffected and last year, parent Procter & Gamble wrote down $8 bn of Gillette’s value, although it denied the decision had anything to do with the campaign. As Gillette’s Global Grooming CEO Gary Coombe said when I heard him speak at a British Brands Group event in London, the ad was about the soul of the business, about long-term sustainability and about reaching out to younger consumers. It was a gutsy act of leadership, driven by a genuine desire to change. Gillette has softened its advertising since, but has succeeded in shedding baggage and is better positioned for the future.

Values drive the boldest change-no change decisions. Companies that believe in their values (existing or new) and place them front and centre will be able to use them as reference points to deal with societal change. I was struck by a recent example of this from the US retailer Trader Joe’s (TJs) which was on the tricky end of a petition to delist products that the petitioners deemed to be ‘cultural appropriation’.

Resisting an initial temptation to collapse in a heap and pivot to appease campaigners, TJs treated the petition as the voice of a critical friend and consulted its values, employees, customers, and business partners. It found that the products in question were in fact, and were correctly understood to be, a celebration of culture and diversity and renewed its commitment to them. Instead of waiting for the outrage to reach fever-pitch, it clarified its position quickly and publicly. Rather like Gilette, TJs had the guts to alienate some and endear others for the sake of living out its values, though unlike Gillette it chose to reaffirm them.

Not all companies will suddenly be pivoting and pirouetting in some sort of choreographed corporate dance. Most will gradually and quietly adapt their policies and procedures to embed evolving societal beliefs into an existing value-set and focus on the organisational nuts and bolts to be future proof. This may well be enough as long as they are genuinely grounded in their values, create proof-points to back them up with and don’t just aim to avoid criticism.

Those that, on honest self-reflection, find themselves living by comedian Groucho Marx’ quote “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others” will need to ground themselves or end up adrift.

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