Updated: Dec 18, 2020
By Rick Byrne
COO and Co-founder
It is an understatement to say that 2020 is a year we won’t soon forget. The driving events have been literally biblical in scope—think fire, drought, and plague. We also grappled with issues of societal upheaval and reckoning, partly because of the aforementioned, that we haven’t seen in generations: race; gender; equality; policing; the environment; the future of work and the workplace; the fate of our cities; ethics; leadership; and democracy. How about a halting economy that in many sectors has collapsed? The list goes on.
With all of this as a backdrop, when CMOs look back at 2020, they will remember it as the tipping point in the rise of the values-based consumer. Even with what seems to be unprecedented, shared adversity, the year 2020 brings into sharp focus that wholesale societal change isn’t bringing us closer together but is instead fueling polarization of our worldviews. Of course, deepening polarization is not new. Pew showed that in 2017, the gap in political values on key issues like race, government and immigration was dramatically widening. This November, after the election, Pew researchers Michael Dimok and Richard Wike wrote: “Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today.” It might be encouraging to think that polarization of this breadth would be contained to our politics and will abate as a contentious political cycle ends. But according to Dimok and Wilke, just before the election 80% of registered voters in both parties said their differences with those on the other side were about “core American values.” So, it is not just about politics anymore. Evidence shows that polarization has made its way into almost all aspects of American life in places where we apply our core values to our everyday decision making. CMOs should pay close attention to this aspect of the polarization phenomenon because it has had profound impact on how we act as consumers, investors and employees. Today, 70% of investors place a high level of importance on personal values alignment with a company’s values as a key driver in their investment decisions. In 2018, an Accenture Strategy Research Report showed that “62% of consumers want companies to take a stand on issues close to their heart,” and “56% expect corporate leaders to take a stance on political or social issues.” Similarly, a Linkedin survey showed “71% of professionals say they would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that has a mission they believe in and shared values.” That was two exceptionally long years ago. If you are in the CMO suite (or working in your spare bedroom), 2020 has not lacked for challenges related to the larger issues. In June, the Wall Street Journal analyzed the text on 35 CEO statements to see how each company was addressing the unrest that started in Minneapolis sparked by the murder of George Floyd. PR and Corporate Comms people reading this know the pressure of approving public statements because one wrong word can send a stock price tumbling, drive public backlash, or launch a boycott. In 2020, they are up against journalists employing “natural-language processing libraries for Python, including TextBlob, NLTK and spaCy,” as the WSJ used in its analysis to count frequency in the statements and parse word choice including: “murder,” “racism,” and “police”. Not long ago, publicists (I was one of them) almost always advised “no comment” on anything with risk not causally related to their company’s own actions. In 2020, none other than The Journal is counting how often CEOs used the words “murder” and “racism.” Talk about a societal shift. At Pluralytics, we’ve developed our own NLP and machine-learning software to measure how companies are using language to connect with values-based stakeholders. Our platform “reads” content, assesses who it appeals to—and why—and then recommends language changes to positively appeal to more people or mitigate the risk of inadvertently alienating people where polarized values exist. We have found that in a deeply fragmented, polarized marketplace, almost every word counts when it comes to values, and we are not alone. Forrester has been on the forefront of research when it comes to values and consumer attitudes, arguing that strong brand values deliver better business results. In February 2020, Principal Analyst Jim Nail wrote: “Consumers’ desire to align themselves with brands and companies that share their social, political, moral, and other values continues to grow.” And that was in, well, the Before Times. COVID itself has become a deeply polarizing issue that almost every major company has taken a stand on. Our early study on COVID language, which examined only a 24-hour period of media coverage in April, was already showing striking word frequency differences across worldviews. In September, IPSOS, the global market research firm, wrote in “Taking a Stand in the Age of COVID,” a paper by its corporate reputation team: “Above all, be relevant and authentic: a stance which is aligned with a strong social purpose that is true to your values can bring benefits beyond the purely altruistic – creating a real connection with customers, helping to attract the best talent and leading to better engagement with influencers.” The values wave has been building for years. In 2016—a lifetime ago—The Conference Board conducted a survey of major corporations to understand attitudes toward speaking out on social issues. At the time, 74% said they expected “pressure to get involved in social issues” to deepen over the next 3 years. Those expectations were highest among companies with more than $15 billion in annual revenue. It should not have been surprising then when, three years after The Conference Board survey, the Business Roundtable created significant buzz by releasing a new statement on the fundamental purpose of a corporation. It was signed by 181 CEOs. Alex Gorsky, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Johnson & Johnson and Chair of the Business Roundtable Corporate Governance Committee, said the new statement affirmed “the essential role corporations can play in improving our society when CEOs are truly committed to meeting the needs of all stakeholders.” As reported by TriplePundit, a publication aimed at CSR professionals, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, speaking in November at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's 2020 Corporate Citizenship Conference, told the audience he believed that COVID would accelerate stakeholders’ desire for purpose-driven businesses. “This divergent world is about having a voice,” he said. "When you have that voice and it connects with your clients…. You can be one of those companies that is creating a 20, 30 percent premium versus your peers.” The difficulties of 2020 will be impossible for anyone to forget. CMOs should remember it as the year when articulating values in communications went from a nice-to-have, to a must-have. It is the year when values-based consumers went from a target to the target. Heading into 2021, remember to be authentic, relatable, and values-aligned. And remember, every word counts. Rick Byrne is the COO and Co-Founder of Pluralytics, the first language intelligence solution powered by people's values. For an audit of how your company measures up on values language, visit www.pluralytics.com/snapshot-form.