In August 2019, 181 global CEOs emerged from the influential Business Roundtable annual meeting with a signed commitment to redefine corporate success – one less focused on maximizing shareholder value and more focused on delivering against a more meaningful purpose. It marked a commercial evolution toward ‘conscious capitalism,’ or the belief that brands — now ever-present forces of their consumers lives thanks to always-on social media engagement — were just as responsible to great progress as they were great products.
Nine months later, their commitment was put to the test. Even amid the dangers of a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation, bringing a discussion about racial justice to the forefront of the national conversation. As a result, many businesses have said they are resolving to improve in their philosophies, principles, and practices.
Alain Sylvain, entrepreneur and founder of Sylvain Labs, a strategy and design consultancy with offices across the globe, has been one of the experts who has spent the past few years helping companies grapple with their purpose. Though always part of the company's DNA, after the protests, Sylvain, a Haitian-American, focused his lens even more on helping keep brands accountable to their impact on culture and society at large, encouraging them to revisit their missions, visions and values in the process. He believes that when companies unite with culture, real progress is possible — businesses grow, lives improve and society advances.
As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Sylvain to synthesize his expertise for brands for small businesses, who are increasingly finding themselves at their own crossroads of looking at their companies as platforms for good:
International brands with prominent social presences certainly have a different equation to balance when it comes to making a stand. What are the variables of the ‘making-a-stand’ equation for small businesses? Which variables have the most weight?
Small businesses, have an opportunity to take a stand that’s truly authentic and representative of their organizations.
That’s not to say small businesses have it easy. But for any organization, making the “perfect” statement on social media is difficult, and sometimes it’s not enough. Consumers are demanding that these statements are backed by actions, long-term commitment and sometimes even a full reconstitution of company values. This is what will carry the most weight.
As small business leaders consider this, they should ask themselves: Are my actions valuable to the population I represent? Are my commitments positively contributing to the larger conversation? And are they consistent with the context we’re in?
At Sylvain Labs, we’ve tried to create a culture that encourages open conversations with one another, without the worry of too much hierarchical structure. That’s an ideal scenario.
How can small businesses think about how they show up non-verbally, even on digital channels? Larger brands often have resources to invest testing and research that can reveal non-verbal cues, but small businesses don’t. How can small businesses approach how they show up in non-verbal areas, from logo design to how they sound on social to what their stores look like?
Small businesses must show up in moments like these, beyond reactive statements. Ideally, all verbal and non-verbal communication is timeless from the start -- meaning you won’t have to change your tone, design or appearance because of different contextual interpretations. Of course, sometimes we do have to make small tweaks, so revisiting your digital assets regularly (crisis or no crisis) will allow you to prolong your story as the world evolves.
It’s also an important time to consider recruiting practices, company certifications and commitments. Employees are fundamental to how companies show up in the world, particularly now as they take more agency. For example, do you hire those that represent your values? Are you hiring BIPOC? Do you support their growth once you do?
Even if they have the best of intentions, not every great small business owner is a great communicator. Combined with the visibility of social media, this can prove disastrous. If you’re a business owner, how do you assess your communications skills? If you’re an employee of that business owner, how do you approach the difficult conversation of encouraging your boss to get off social media?
It starts with honest introspection. It’s my experience that the best leaders have a great sense of emotional intelligence and are mindful of the impact their words and actions have on others. Not because they’re afraid of offending them, but because they want to accurately capture their organization’s collective feeling.
Next to introspection, every business leader needs to have a mirror of themselves. A person (or people) that can be truthful with them about their direction, that may have a better understanding of individual employee perspectives.
But there isn’t always a right answer here. At Sylvain Labs, we’ve tried to create a culture that encourages open conversations with one another, without the worry of too much hierarchical structure. That’s an ideal scenario. It’s equally important to have internal advocates for your employees, allowing those with concerns to voice them while remaining anonymous.
Small businesses are emerging from lockdown into the next (new) normal. What’s the right way to think about this moment from a brand positioning perspective? Should they think about completely refreshing their positioning and messaging to reflect the new realities of the moment? Should they experiment with new messaging tactics or technologies? Or do you recommend just getting back to normal?
There are countless factors that will determine how small businesses emerge into the “next” normal. First and foremost, the existing fabric of the company itself, and the exact moment of context it emerges into.
But ultimately, I believe brands are meant to be timeless. The fundamental beliefs of all organizations should hold true no matter what. In theory, you shouldn’t need to refresh your positioning. If you’re a “Hero” brand, you should remain one before, during and after a crisis. The world may look a little different, but it doesn’t change who you are.
Do you leverage new tools, technologies and ways of communicating to keep up with new realities? Of course. We’re seeing large-scale cultural macroshifts and people’s needs and attitudes are changing everyday because of them. Understand how these shifts apply to your business and plan accordingly -- but not by changing who you are.
Social media and digital platforms give every business an equal voice, but not really – small businesses often don’t have the time or resources to contend with their larger counterparts when it comes to share of voice or impact of messaging. Is there a guerilla-style approach for small businesses to level that playing field? Should they even join the competition in the first place?
Shortcuts don’t exist, and it’s not a competition. Companies large and small should simply practice human decency.
Yes, small businesses have a more limited reach than their larger counterparts. But use that to your advantage. See it as an opportunity to take more risk and be more creative about what you stand for.
I would also urge small businesses to be understanding of exactly who their audience is. It’s a strategic one. A tighter-knit group of supporters can often have more power and motivation to maintain that support than from one-time messages.