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2020 is an inflection point as consumers increasingly demand change from business leaders and corporations, our new research reveals.
While activism has been prominent in our lives for some time, it has been convenient to dismiss it as a fringe activity.
Many business leaders will have felt the tide beginning to turn as wider society has become frustrated with the status quo on issues of race, equality, inclusion and the planet. We predict that slow groundswell will turn into a tide of activism over the next decade.
Age of activism
Our Get out in Front research reveals that 40%1 of the general public say the pandemic will make them more likely to be engaged in social issues. Pre-pandemic 38% classify themselves as actively engaged in the last 12 months having signed a petition, attended a protest, donated and campaigned.
To understand what is driving this activist spirit, we researched public feeling towards today’s mega trends of social and cultural change, environmental change, digital revolution and responsible capitalism.
We found that people want change, expect action from business leaders and are anxious and optimistic in equal measure about the issues facing us.
The number one issue ranked by respondents is reducing carbon emissions. And by 2025, 74% of respondents felt climate change and extreme weather patterns would become even more important. More broadly, 59% care more about reducing poverty and wealth inequality than they did a year ago.
One of the legacies of 2020 is that activism becomes further mainstream posing challenging questions for those managing risks in their businesses as well as senior leaders.
Power to the people
Where public attitudes go, media, policymakers and businesses eventually follow. Herein lies the jeopardy. Corporations after COVID-19 cannot passively spectate as society demands change because increasingly we expect business to not only act responsibly but to lead by example.
For example, 75% of the public expect CEOs in the consumer sector to be making more progress on reducing carbon emissions. The public wants action not just words as 58% expect businesses to adjust their business practices to address the issues they take a stance on.
This trend will only strengthen as our research shows that activism is three times stronger in younger generations than over 65’s.
Business and reputation dividend
Those that do ‘get out in front’ of change will protect their reputation and enjoy the economic benefits that follow. These range from getting a fairer hearing from regulators, winning with talent, raising capital on better terms and enhancing consumer loyalty.
We learn that 42% changed consumption habits because of their feelings towards environmental issues. 23% of respondents say they switched their custom to a company or brand that shares their values on environmental issues. 21% encouraged others to switch to a company whose values align with their opinion on an issue.
The good news for businesses is that there is lots of space to run into. Less than 40% think business currently has a positive impact on society. Consumers aged between 18-25, instead of being anxious about issues, feel excited and energetic about the future.
Behaviour drives reputation
We asked the public to rate different industries on our reputation indicators – ‘do they trust them, are they responsible and do they make a positive impact?’
Despite regular controversies, the Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) sector leads on four out of our five reputation indicators, including:
Our research confirms that in a more activist world, behaviour and performance across social, cultural and environmental issues increasingly shapes the reputation large companies enjoy.
Expect more reputational issues to catch fire as a company’s behaviour falls short when under the microscope of public scrutiny.
A final thought
Deloitte global CEO Punit Renjen reflected that “the world has reached a tipping point on societal issues: from racial justice to climate change, people around the world are demanding action – and this time feels different.” He’s right and we have the data to validate this.
In our current Resilience Reimagined campaign, we have identify the three pillars of organisational resilience – finance, operations and reputation. So spotting shifts in public opinion is imperative if organisations want to be more resilient.
Companies need to take stock and rethink what their purpose is against the new template of society emerging after COVID-19.
The true prize is there for organisations who see both the reputational and business dividend that comes from being part of and in step with change in a more activist world.
Get out in Front research is available here
Mark Hutcheon is a specialist in reputation management and corporate affairs. For over 20 years, he has advised and worked for major brands helping them protect and grow reputation. Mark helps clients understand their reputation through data, put governance and strategy behind it, detect reputation risk and grow reputation to unlock competitive advantage. He helps CEOs and corporate affairs leaders put reputation at the heart of their decision-making and provides support and counsel in times of opportunity and challenge. In leadership roles for both a global technology and leading sports brand he set the communications agenda, protected reputations in times of distress and created strategies that built trust and value in the business. Previously he was a partner in a reputation management consultancy.