New survey of corporate leaders shows Wendy’s WAY behind the curve on social responsibility…

A graphic from the new report “Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It” captures several of the lessons drawn from an extensive survey of business leaders on the role of corporations in addressing social problems from inequality to climate change.

Elizabeth Ricardo, Peet’s Coffee: “We’re at a tipping point because of the extreme landscape of conversations around social issues. We’re doubling down on what our values are.”

First, a quick recap: Readers of this site will remember that, earlier this month, Wendy’s was caught in a social media maelstrom that left more than a bit of egg on the fast-food giant’s face.  Not only did the episode – sparked by an Instagram post by comedian Amy Schumer calling on her millions of followers to boycott Wendy’s for its refusal to join the Fair Food Program – serve to spread the news of the Wendy’s Boycott to millions of consumers who most likely had not heard of it before, but it provided observers from the world of corporate public relations a powerful case study of how not to manage a communications crisis.  

As we mentioned at the time, author and business consultant Blake Morgan, author of the book “The Customer Of The Future: 10 Guiding Principles To Winning Tomorrow’s Business,” published an editorial in titled “Three Reasons Why Wendy’s Missed The Mark By Not Responding To Customers,” on just this point.  The editorial recounted the history of the social media dust-up and concluded:

… A brand’s reputation depends on how it responds to and interacts with customers. Wendy’s missed the mark by choosing to only respond to positive press. It’s a move that could seriously hurt its image and add fire to the protests.

Now, just weeks after Wendy’s painful public relations failure, comes fresh feedback from the world of corporate communications on the importance of listening to consumers, particularly when it comes to issues of social responsibility and the role of corporations in addressing longstanding social problems like sexual harassment and other abuses at work.  And the report, titled “Leading with Purpose in an Age Defined by It,” makes one thing abundantly clear: Corporations, like Wendy’s, that choose to ignore consumers’ demands for real social accountability do so at their own peril.

The report – a survey of 254 “management and C-suite leaders across industries and geographies” carried out by the business-to-business group Quartz Insights, in collaboration with the award-winning corporate communications company WE – starts from the following premise:

We’ve reached an inflection point for defining the role of business in society.  It’s no longer sufficient for brands and corporations to focus on maximizing profits at the expense of social good.  The public is increasingly looking to the private sector – brands, companies, and organizations – to respond to issues like inequality, climate change, and immigration reform.  These issues are simply too big, and their ramifications too massive, for businesses to dismiss. The idea that companies can and should have a broader social impact is transforming how and by whom society’s greatest issues are addressed.

The report goes on to share a number of significant statistics and conclusions drawn from its survey, all of which support the report’s central finding – that “there is an unmatched urgency around purpose leadership,” which the authors define as “how brands can effect change in light of some of the most pressing issues facing our society.”  Some of the report’s highlights include:

  • “No longer neutral: 84% agree that customers will demand greater transparency.  The research establishes an inextricable link between social issues and business strategy. Companies can no longer operate in a vacuum. As 84% of our respondents say, customers will demand greater transparency and assurance that the brands they support have a positive impact on society.”

  • “Discerning customers will walk. The research shows that people will form deeper connections to brands, but 74% of respondents say that customers won’t stay with brands that don’t share their values. Future customers will thus be more discerning about brands they choose. If they don’t see themselves in a brand story, or they feel alienated by thoughtless actions, they may walk. This becomes pronounced during a recession, when consumers are even more selective about spending.”
  • “Purpose is the bottom line: 73% [of respondents] believe purpose leadership will become as important as financial performance.There is a powerful economic incentive for brands to adopt a purpose strategy—nearly three-quarters of respondents think purpose leadership will become as important as an organization’s financial performance. It is clear that long-term purpose strategy is essential to business strategy and is considered table stakes in today’s corporate landscape.”
Those are just a few of the findings from this exciting new study.  Its results are clearly relevant to the future of the Fair Food Movement, and should be mandatory reading material for food industry leaders, from Wendy’s to Publix, Kroger, and Costco.  
The report’s fundamental conclusion – that in order to simply survive in the 21st century, it is imperative that corporations take part in driving positive social change – is one that food industry leaders, for the most part, have been slow to embrace.  That is true despite the fact that many of the very worst social ills still festering in corporate supply chains today – from sexual violence to modern-day slavery – take place in the fields, here and abroad, where our fruits and vegetables are grown and harvested.  The companies that have joined the Fair Food Program have demonstrated a measure of leadership in supporting the one proven program for eliminating those abuses, but there is still much to be done.  There are, of course, many more companies still not participating in the FFP than those that are; and even for those participating buyers, the majority of their produce suppliers’ operations remain beyond the reach of the program’s protections, compared to the still small percentage of growers that are covered.  
Fair Food Program expansion – both to new buyers and to new fields – is vitally important.  This new report makes the business case for that expansion, based on interviews with business leaders themselves.  
You can download the report in its entirety here