The 'New And Improved' Sustainable Development Goals. Why Should Brands Care?

I spent two intense days at the  Social Good Summit in New York last week and left feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. The exhaustion was the result of attending six hours of back-to-back sessions with no break, listening to an impressive mix of leaders from business, government, the entertainment world, NGOs, start-ups and civil society talk about the challenges confronting the world today. These leaders have established 17 ambitious sustainable goals for the world to accomplish—in only 15 short years. The exhilaration came from feeling empowered to think about new ways to tackle some of these goals using the powerful marketing tools at our disposal.  My first step is to share a few ways that can marketers and brands engage with these goals and a few pointers. 

There are five key points to take away from the Summit:

1. Less charity/more advocacy. There is a shift away from traditional “charity” to empowering those in need by giving them a fishing pole — and advocating for their right to fish. Language is important, and I was struck by the frequent use of the terms dignity, rights and justice, underscoring the injection of empathy, humanity and equality into the equation. Interestingly, this has spilled over into the global warming conversation: “climate change” is increasingly referred to as “climate justice” in recognition of the sad fact that it is the least empowered people who suffer the greatest impacts from a warming planet. We have seen brands take on roles of advocacy and stand up for rights of disenfranchised populations. We will see more in the future. 

2. Data is power. Several speakers placed great emphasis on the role of data to measure, inform and hold accountable. Examples: counting transgender people as a means to reduce discrimination and violence; ensuring that women’s voices in developing markets get heard when polling “heads of household;” enlisting underprivileged communities in places like Detroit, “a first world city crawling with third-world problems,” to do their own data collection, identify issues and participate actively in solutions. Brands can use their data skills to play an active role here. By offering their competencies, they can build stronger relationships with communities, identify businesses opportunities, and simultaneously help fix some seriously broken parts of society. 

3. Technology democratizes. The rise of the $40 Android smartphone and greater broadband in Africa will bring the next billion people online in less than five years — and empower them. Technology is providing access to information for a whole new swath of the population, offering them a seat at the global economic table. Brands that properly anticipate the opportunities with these new segments stand to benefit greatly.

4. Social networks continue to catalyze change. Social networks are giving marginalized communities a voice. They are enabling us to bear witness to the realities on the ground, and they are inspiring people to become new philanthropists. Brands can provide platforms to facilitate and advocate for these connections.

5. Storytellingis essential. Stories humanize and unite. They overcome global indifference. Carefully crafted stories allow us to bridge the understanding gap. When we tell stories about solutions that exist, we connect civil societies across the globe, allowing them to learn from one another. This is a key response to the eternal question of “how to scale.” By sharing stories, we build solidarity, enabling the well-resourced echelons of civil society to connect and empathize with the smaller, struggling communities. Stories make issues relevant and personal.  Brands that help tell stories with empathy and authenticity have the opportunity to actively contribute to the Summit’s 17 sustainable goals.

There is no brand on the planet that cannot or should not engage with one of these 17 goals. Every brand has an opportunity to embrace activism and simultaneously grow its business; innovate; create deeper connections with their consumers, clients and employees; build resilience and reduce risk; or develop new markets. Marketers who believe these 17 goals are not relevant to their business are sorely mistaken and will learn that if you are not a global citizen today, your license to operate will be called into question, sooner or later.

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