Business can’t hide from politics anymore: younger customers and employees care about social issues. Companies, from Coutts to Costa, need to learn how to strike a balance, writes Ryan Shorthouse
Businesses have broadcast a stronger commitment to equality, diversity and the environment. This has often led to changes not just to their marketing, but often to their recruitment and policies too.
Yes, this is partially driven by regulation. But there are also attitudinal shifts. Younger consumers and staff have higher expectations that the companies they buy from or work for are more ethical in the way they do business. They want to see a commitment not just to profit, but purpose, from corporate entities. And companies need this young talent.
They also need young customers. They’re fearful that complaints can be instantly and widely shared via social media, damaging institutional reputations quickly.
That is not to say younger folks, increasingly graduates of a university education, are being indoctrinated into Marxist thinking on campuses. Just before the 2015 general election, High Fliers Research found that almost half of 30 leading universities saw their final- year students most likely to back the Conservatives.
Rather, we generally see the same commitment to aspiration, hard work and making money – all of which you can see leading to an economically liberal world view. But younger generations are progressively becoming more socially liberal – on race relations, gender roles and sexuality. In essence, they are more strongly supportive of cultural cosmopolitanism.
This points to a greater individualist mindset – both for social identity and economic independence. This should not be mistaken for communalist politics, which foregrounds our social characteristics and pits different social groups against one another, which is being promulgated by a loud but relatively small number of activists.
Companies are finding that politics is not just in the domain of their foreign policy, to be dealt with at distance by a cadre of expert professionals and agencies. Politics is increasingly at the heart of everyday company life, especially on cultural and environmental matters. Politics is now very much part of their domestic policy.
How to deal with different behaviours and beliefs among employees. What counts as bad behaviour and how it’s dealt with. The climate and environmental policies they adopt. The people and countries they do business with. Companies are having to deal with clashes that need to be resolved consistently and effectively, before they blow up.
Some companies haven’t got it right, deeply damaging their brand. The denouncement of Nigel Farage’s political views in internal documents has backfired badly for Coutts Bank and its parent company, Natwest, leading to days of bad publicity and executive resignations this summer.
This country’s leading business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, fell into crisis in the spring when several allegations from women of sexual misconduct by senior staff became public, leading to a withdrawal of political engagement and corporate membership. It survived an Extraordinary General Meeting, but limps on.
The parent company of Bud Light saw a massive drop in sales and its share price earlier this year after a transgender influencer partnered with the beer brand to advertise a personalised can, leading to a huge boycott from more conservative consumers, especially in rural midwestern and southern America.
Costa Coffee is the most recent UK company to face threats of a boycott, after it featured a cartoon of a transgender person in an advertisement. Last year, Brewdog was slammed for its critical campaign of the FIFA World Cup being hosted in Qatar while continuing to show the football at its bars. An open letter from 100 former employees, who damned the toxic working environment at the company, went viral and the trade union Unite declared that they were “one of the worst employers in the brewing industry.”
Politics is jeopardous, but it is a risk that corporates increasingly cannot hide from. They have a massive role to play in achieving better social, environmental and economic outcomes. Of course businesses need to behave ethically and responsibly, but they need to reflect the quieter majority, rather than the shoutiest voices. And they need consistency, not stridency, in their policies.