Launching a Company Social Initiative: Here’s How to Win Buy-In

Challenger Brands Make A Positive Impact

How do I get my company’s stakeholders and customers to buy into social initiatives such as sustainability, mental health and education?

In working with Challenger Brands focused on delivering profit and purpose, this is one of the questions we get asked most. Though the answer is largely dependent upon how your organization operates, there are a number of steps that can help you win buy-in.

1. Consider your license to operate.

To say a business is all positive is to deny a simple truth: No matter the product or service you’re selling, there are impacts to the environment and/or society, including a carbon footprint that could likely be better optimized. That’s why it’s important to think about your license to operate. What can you introduce, in terms of solutions or branding, that will welcome you into people’s lives and the community, secure your place on the planet and improve your bottom line?

Before I joined Walmart in 2010, the company had made demonstrable commitments to sustainability, in part to offset criticism against the giant retailer and to secure its future by helping to protect and restore resources upon which it depended. I helped strengthen that position by creating a refurbishing solution that enabled the company to divert billions of pounds of electronics from landfills while developing a new multi-billion dollar revenue stream in the process.

Social initiatives shouldn’t be tokenized or embraced as a penance, like creating a small park or public art installation in an area of the city that’s being over-developed. Instead, they must be something that authentically offsets the impact your business is having on the planet.

2. Frame your initiative as a gift with purchase.

Even if your business is sustainable and ethical, it doesn’t mean that every product and service you offer has to lead with that positioning. Rather, you can frame it as a gift or a surprising positive bonus.

I subscribe to the “jobs to be done” framework in which consumers “hire” a product or brand to fix a certain problem they need solving in their lives. Focus on ensuring your business does that, addressing root issues and frictions in your customers’ lives. Then, explain how their purchases support your commitment to sustainability, mental health support, education or anything else your business is committed to, framing it as an added gift with purchase when they checkout. Doing so will demonstrate that you care as much about what you do as how you do it.

3. Appeal to shareholders.

In my experience, the bulk of shareholders maintains an extremely short-term focus on profit. So, in framing your social initiative as a gift with purchase, make sure there is financial appeal for shareholders. Demonstrate how your initiative is better for the world and the bottom line.

Let’s say, throughout the pandemic, your business has held on to the high-value real estate. The last two years have shown us that working from home works. With that in mind, could you sell or repurpose your assets to deliver financial and social benefits? Perhaps you could lease some of your space to complementary startups or to a day-care provider to support parents in your workforce. This would ensure your assets are delivering returns while also supporting communities in need.

4. Strengthen your mission.

Every business has a mission—that stated purpose of why the business exists. In working to get your company’s buy-in for a socially beneficial program, think about how you’re connecting it to, and advancing, your company’s mission.

The same applies to publicly stated goals—whether they’re driven by legislation, public pressure or your organization’s leadership. It can be helpful to demonstrate how your initiative helps to advance and achieve those goals. If your organization has made a public declaration to go carbon neutral by 2030 or stated it will get rid of single-use plastic completely, show the specific steps you will take to make those goals a reality.

It’s tough to get a company to say yes to a new initiative, let alone one that isn’t purely about dollars and cents. You need to show its profitability and its potential for social impact and provide assurance that it’s not going to negatively impact your bottom line.


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