Commentary

Marketers Must Seize Business Roundtable's Invitation

This summer, the Business Roundtable (a collection of almost 200 CEOs from some of America’s largest corporations, including Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, ExxonMobil, GM, P&G and Walmart) released a statement saying that the purpose of corporations had changed from maximizing shareholder value to making the world a better place -- for employees, suppliers, communities, shareholders, everyone.

While naturally the public reacted with both praise and skepticism, the marketing community should be celebrating. This shift is quite possibly the best thing to happen to marketing in the last 40 years. In fact, it’s the opportunity our entire industry has been waiting for.

When shareholder value is the singular goal, we get dismissed as soft, unimportant, even naïve. But when business becomes an engine that profits from a better world, we’re the fuel.

Because what’s needed in this new world is expertise in humanity so that companies can create value for all human beings, regardless of which stakeholder group they belong to. And, last time I checked, “humanity” was marketing’s area.

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This is our chance to reclaim our place at the strategic table. The time is now, while it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds. But before we walk into the room, we need to firm up a few talking points.

First, marketing taps into the motivations common among shareholder groups, so we can best provide value to all of them.

Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. All of us constantly need essential things like food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, belongingness, and so on. For a company, that’s a bottomless goldmine of ways to initiate a value exchange: Satisfy these needs in exchange for passionate contribution (from employees), lower prices (from suppliers), public support (from the community), and increased revenue (from customers).

You must understand human needs to transform a product offering, and that’s marketing’s sweet spot.

Second, no one is just a customer, an employee, a supplier, a resident or a shareholder. We all play many roles (much as I’m an individual, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and a friend). So when a brand is talking to a customer, it’s also probably talking to a shareholder, a member of the community, a supplier, employee or some combination of the above. 

What’s more, technology makes it easy for people to see messages that aren’t “meant” for them. And conflicting messages are what have called shareholder primacy into question. Companies’ shareholder actions clashed with their customer messaging, creating cognitive dissonance -- like showing up to a first date to find the other person wearing a wedding ring. 

Companies can no longer pretend to be different things to different groups. Oversegmentation makes people feel objectified. Only marketing can help companies embrace the complex, often contradictory nature of human beings. Only marketing can provide the balanced value defined by a purpose-driven brand.

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