How to move from “Mitigation Mindset” to “Leadership Stance”

Interbrand’s contention, shared in the introduction to this years’ Best Global Brands report (pX), is that today’s most relevant and valuable brands are balancing acts of power and responsibility, not just engines of growth – but acts of leadership. In this article we explore the opportunities and challenges of both doing things right, and doing the right things, drawing on Best Global Brands data, best-in-class examples, and some of the proprietary methodologies we offer our clients.

Brand Leadership in the “cancel” era

Intuitively, the idea of brands as acts of leadership feels in tune with the zeitgeist – but we wanted to establish quantitatively whether consumers are sensitive to environmental and social issues in their decision making. The results suggest a resounding “yes”: We found that more than 90% of people are aware and concerned by environmental and social issues and that these topics are material to brand relevance. Brand Integrity and Ethics, along with the perception of having a positive impact on society, is a statistically significant driver of choice in all sectors and in all steps of the customer journey. 

Convincing numbers, but perhaps it’s not “new news” that these topics are of concern to consumers. Why, then, is it so difficult to point to brands with a clear and compelling stance? Well, as we argued in the introduction to this report, a well-run brand used to steer away from controversy and focus on “commerce” but safe silences are no longer rewarded and, today, neutrality is seen as a failure of leadership. This leaves brands caught in a tension – between criticism of “not doing enough” at one end of the spectrum, or of “doing things wrong” at the other. This tension leads to what we’re calling a “mitigation mindset” – an understandable tendency towards doing enough to not be wrong, but not enough to be exceptional. What does it take to move from a “mitigation mindset” to a leadership stance?

Integrity at the core

As we are coming to realise, the world’s ongoing and accelerating transformation has the potential for very ‘Good’ and very ‘Bad’ outcomes. In this fluid and rapidly changing context an organizational ethics framework creates the ability to behave in a consistently responsible way for all stakeholders. The creation of such a framework involves aligning organizational culture, values, systems, and decision making. Today, organizational ethics – and the translation of these to measurable and credible impacts – has become the core of reputation, and the basis of a corporation’s license to operate. In fast moving spaces such as technology, in which new innovations are live before safeguards such as laws and policies can be put in place[1], the integrity of a corporation and the resulting trust its brand engenders is emerging as a competitive advantage.

It’s within this context that Microsoft’s subtle but powerful stance of Integrity powers its brand – following a focussed effort to drive trust in products that enhance the human experience, rather than undermine it. The corporation is acutely aware of its role within society and is clear on its intention to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. In the company’s 2022 Impact Summary, CEO Satya Nadella wrote, “our actions must be aligned with addressing the world’s problems, not creating new ones,” implicitly suggesting that as it integrates technology ever deeper within the human experience, it needs to do so in a manner that protects human values, human truths and human priorities – as defined by a robust code of ethics. Today’s most progressive leadership teams, like that of Microsoft, have a reliable and robust means for navigating the decisions they are making to ensure the outcomes have integrity. At Microsoft, it appears that a strong foundation of integrity and ethical decision making is doing exactly what it should: driving trust in the brand and increasing brand and wider stakeholder value at the same time.

Interested in exploring an ethical framework for your brand?

Interbrand is proud to have partnered with Principia Advisory – the leading advisory firm on organizational ethics. Together, we are helping forward-thinking organizations resolve their most challenging ethics problems to create legacy-level change that is integrated into organizational purpose.

Moving climate from push to pull

Tesla is the second fastest growing brand in our 2022 ranking, with 32% growth YOY and a value of $48,002; is perhaps the best embodiment of shifting expectations in terms of environment and experience. Tesla has acted upon two truths about the race to save the planet that others have yet to capitalise on:

  1. The climate crisis will create economic transformation akin to the first industrial revolution. A recent research note from Credit Suisse, suggested that forthcoming climate legislation “will have a profound effect on the American Economy in the next decade and beyond” and that for big corporations, the legislation “definitively changes the narrative from risk mitigation to opportunity capture.” The bank estimates the legislation could add $1.7 trillion to the US economy alone.
  2. The climate crisis is the world’s biggest problem with the world’s worst marketing… Working with the United Nations Development Programme and a coalition of Best Global Brands, Interbrand is leading the world’s largest co-creation exercise – with 1,000+ people in 12 global cities, representing 50+ nationalities on 6 continents.  Our initial findings show that that brands tend to communicate in language that confuses or alienates consumers, leading to individual and collective inaction. 

Tesla, whose mission is accelerating the transition to green energy, capitalises on these opportunities by delivering its solutions in the most relevant and desirable way possible. In short, the Tesla brand is to climate what the Apple brand is to technology – and is moving the climate narrative from push to pull.  Of course, Tesla is not without controversy, in particular around the activities of its CEO, Elon Musk. However, a clear organizational stance on this single issue, executed to perfection, has created a leadership position. And in making the right choice the most desirable choice, Tesla has reset expectations around brands with climate issues at the core – setting the bar for other players and raising the bar for its brand value at the same time. 

Interested in elevating what it means to be a leader?

Interbrand is working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to offer a unique new service to clients. Leveraging the UNDPs unrivalled expertise in climate, nature, energy and sustainable finance, Interbrand’s unrivalled expertise building the best global brands, and our Human Truths teams’ unrivalled expertise in creating the most relevant outcomes in the most agile way – we are elevating what it means to be a leader– fit for the transition and beyond that will reward people and planet

Inclusive by Design

As Nike enters the top 10 for the first time ever, with an 18% increase YOY and a brand value of $50,289 – arguably the most inclusive brand on the planet, built from a core belief that everyone is an athlete. Nike’s stance on Inclusion – celebrating life through sport – captures the zeitgeist and stands in direct contrast to the ‘status quo’ in which outdated ideals, apathy and historic legacy have led to a divide that many brands have unwittingly perpetuated.

Sarah Reinertsen, is a former Paralympian, who had to wear specialist medical footwear for years, which she says made her feel ‘othered’. Sarah is also a designer at the FlyEase Innovation team at Nike, which has developed Nike’s first universally designed shoe – rather than using straps or laces, it simply hinges open and closed, so the wearer just needs to slip their foot in and push down. Sarah said: “I was really tired of being told “those are the shoes that are for you because you have a disability”, so I think we’ve been very deliberate in that we might be designing for people with disabilities, but this shoe is for everybody,” she says. There are many slip-on shoes on the market, but the FlyEase line is designed with both fashion and the needs of people with disabilities in mind.

The Go FlyEase is proof that universal design can actually lead to a product that’s better for everyone – to that end the brand quickly sold out of the Go at launch in February 2021 and faced some criticism from the disabled community as it quickly sold out. While Nike never intended artificial scarcity—it supplied tens of thousands of pairs for launch—the company had to quickly address shortages.

[1] Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme

Find out more

Interbrand’s Inclusive Design practice works with its talent, partners and clients to break down the design divide, by removing barriers across every brand experience. Every touchpoint of a customer journey has the potential to make life better. As a result of their efforts, brands who champion a wider spectrum of human need are starting to experience some key benefits. So, with a view to future-proofing ourselves, our societies, and our economies, we want to help our clients move from ‘passive’ to ‘purposeful’ in their inclusivity efforts.