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The Compassion Effect: How Social Activism Is Changing Everything

By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 AM

Doing well by doing good is increasingly the go-to strategy for everything from marketing to entertainment. The phenomenon is being driven by millennials, the world’s first digital generation, now busily reimagining every aspect of our society.

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Illustration By Owen Freeman

Here’s a question worthy of keeping a couple of college students up all night for a bull session about their futures: can they do good and also do well? Must they choose between the two? Or can they tend to their own careers while also addressing conscience-tugging issues like income inequality or racism, not to mention the frightening panoply of global threats facing their generation?

Though they might not know it, they would not be the only ones pondering this double bind. The dilemma resonates around the planet these days, in organization forums, corporate boardrooms and universities. It’s a transformative cultural trend — call it “the compassion effect” — reverberating across society at the box office, at the polls and in the marketplace. And it’s being driven in large part by the influence of the values and attitudes of the nation’s largest and arguably most influential demographic group, the millennials.

A Corporate Passion for Compassion

The “compassion effect” is one of the main ingredients in corporate America’s formula for increasing its appeal to the elusive Millennial consumer. Also called Generation Y, Millennials were born in the last two decades or so of the 20th century, making them at this point in time anywhere from their mid-teens to early 30s — in other words, prime consumers.

At roughly 80 million or so strong, the Millennial demographic is now larger than that of the Baby Boomers. Naturally, companies are turning their attention to what these young people care about and value. A key finding from those efforts: While Millennials love their high-end gadgets and brands, they also want to admire and patronize companies that share their values. According to a Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends report, about one-third of Millennials — more than those in the same age group in previous generations — said they bought a certain product or service because they liked the social or political values of the company that provided the product or service.

Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer for Procter & Gamble and an adjunct professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, examined this very idea in his 2011 book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, a seminal resource for what has come to be called purpose-driven marketing. Millennials, he says, use their digital platforms “to hold commercial brands accountable for keeping their promises, for living up to their brand ideal.”

Many corporations are working on this aspect of their business, hoping to gain Millennial trust. That includes one of the world’s best known: McDonald’s.

The burger giant’s incentive is to better reach Millennials, because these days the first digital generation seems to be exercising more choice in the kinds of fast foods it consumes. In December, the fast-food giant put out a call to ad agencies and media companies to gather ideas for charitable partnerships it could make, saying it wanted to speak directly to “Millennials’ philanthropic priorities.”

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Don't Just Show Them the Money

Why not just write a check for some charity? Not a good idea, cautions Michael Kassan ’72, founder and CEO of MediaLink, the strategic advisory and business development firm that helped McDonald’s solicit ideas from ad agencies and media companies for the do-good initiative. Young consumers, he notes, “see through just writing checks and putting your logo on something. This generation is far more able to look through the veil of deception to get to reality.”

They also have been hardwired since childhood to receive constant marketing communications, and they are so interconnected that they can sniff out and share disingenuousness within a nanosecond. Sanjay Sood, professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, says, “In an age when everything is being talked about online, you have to be ‘authentic’ or just don’t even go in that territory.”

Sood is director of UCLA’s Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports (MEMES), which offers courses to Anderson M.B.A.s that examine the impacts of technology, consolidation and globalization. Primarily at the behest of student interest in social issues, MEMES created a speakers’ series called “Entertainment That Matters,” which last year included talks by 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Mark Burnett, who recently made a miniseries called The Bible and a film called Son of God.

Sood gave an example of the changes he sees in M.B.A. students of today compared to 10 or 15 years ago. If, say, back then he asked a roomful of these students whether they would take a high-paying job at a cigarette company, 90 percent of them would have said they would. “Today it’s reversed,” Sood says. “Only 10 percent of the students would take the money. Because today they choose to work for companies that they believe in.”

Among those corporations most often cited as reaching out with a message of concern for the environment and other social issues is the multinational consumer giant Unilever, whose products include Dove soap, Lipton teas, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and many others. In fact, Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed also oversees the packaged-goods giant’s sustainability efforts. Unilever has pledged, among other things, to halve the environmental footprint of its products and source its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.

Social Activism: The Business Plan

Many other companies as well have reputations as do-gooders, and some have built their business models on the practice. The first one to come to mind for many is Toms Shoes, with its “one for one” promise to provide a pair of shoes to a child in need for every sale of their retail product.

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Of course, not all companies have the freedom of movement to take similar steps. Josh Levine ’93, CEO of Los Angeles marketing firm Rebel Industries, says that incorporating social good into a company’s marketing plan might distinguish it and give it an edge in the market, but good intentions won’t last unless the company’s profit goals are met.

“All of these things matter,” Levine says of the new initiatives by Unilever and others. But he added that it may not be as doable for other companies, and it may not even be what all consumers want when they buy something. “I think we should not get ahead of ourselves and say that just because one large company is doing it that this is what all consumers want, or that this is going to save the environment or whatever those causes may be,” he says.

Levine points out an obvious truth: that lasting change in general is created by leadership, whether by legislating environmental standards or other methods. Peer pressure can also help. So it’s a good sign that in late 2014 a number of large international companies — again, Unilever, along with BT Group, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencer and Carlsberg — worked with the World Economic Forum to create Collectively, a web platform that is designed to engage Millennials in making sustainable lifestyles a “new normal.” Many other companies have since joined in, as has the sustainability nonprofit Forum for the Future.

Young adults, Collectively’s leaders say, will be the ones to lead the shift to more sustainable actions “through life choices that maximize their well-being while minimizing their environmental impact,” while also “demanding workplaces, brands and organizations that align with those values.”

On that latter point, it is clear that Millennials want to work for companies that share their values. “No matter how prestigious the firm is, if there isn’t purpose behind the company’s work, a Millennial will take his or her talent elsewhere,” Stengel says.

Social Activism: The Movie

One sector of society that has seized upon the compassion effect with considerable success is entertainment. At UCLA, the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment, recently created under the umbrella of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT), is working with a $10-million endowment from film producer Jeff Skoll to foster innovative ways to develop entertainment that can move the needle on social issues.

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Skoll, who was eBay’s first full-time employee and first president, made his fortune when eBay went public in 1998. That business success made possible the fulfillment of Skoll’s lifelong dream: to promote social change with a special interest in using storytelling.

Among other things, he launched Participant Media in 2004 to produce films designed to promote activism on social issues like climate change (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), racial prejudice (The Help), healthy and sustainable food (Food, Inc.), and sexual harassment (North Country), among many others. The new center’s goal, the philanthropist has said, will “reach young storytellers at the beginning of their careers and influence more broadly a greater swath of the [entertainment] industry.”

Later this year, Participant Media and the Skoll Center will hold the first of what is intended to be an annual TED-type conference to bring together leaders from the creative community, government, business and nonprofit sectors “to focus on the power of entertainment and performing arts to drive social change,” says TFT Dean Teri Schwartz ’71. The Skoll Center is also underwriting a yearlong course, “Engage L.A.: Social Impact Storytelling,” in which undergraduates focus on the critical issues facing the city using digital tools and technologies to tell stories.

Among those who are looking forward to working with the new Skoll Center is Gayle Northrop M.B.A. ’96, who three years ago began teaching a course at UCLA’s Anderson School in social entrepreneurship — even though she didn’t consider herself an expert in the topic at the time. In her class, Northrop works with Anderson students who either want to use their M.B.A.s for positive social change or want to remind themselves that there’s more to life than just making money. “I tell them that sometimes the best way may not be by working for a nonprofit, but by using their skills as a businessperson — as a manager, leader or marketing person,” she says. For example, they could work within their companies to help the firms move toward more sustainable products or ethical supply chains.

Or, supposing these future business and marketing leaders get lucky: They can make their fortunes and go on to endow places where young people like them can gather to talk about how to make a better world. It’s what TFT’s Schwartz called the “double bottom line.” Do well. Do good. Everybody wins.

A Digital Destiny?

Last fall, Al Gore announced his new “Why? Why Not” initiative to harness Millennials’ technological power in combating the climate crisis. The campaign, part of his Climate Reality Project, is designed to use the social media expertise of these “digital natives” to build support for an international greenhouse gas reduction agreement later this year. As Gore told USA Today, “What starts as a debate on Facebook can quickly spread around the world, across social media networks, and eventually influence world policy.”

Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials understand very well that technological prowess is what sets them apart from prior generations. But no one can predict how lifelong Internet connectedness will bear out in the long run. Will Millennials use their devices to engage in the nation’s civic life, or ignore it in favor of playing games or watching videos on all those screens?

Some may agree with a much-touted adolescent-to-adulthood study a few years ago that concluded that this cohort had more narcissistic traits than previous generations. Others find little or no difference between the generations. In any case, Millennials are poised to dominate the workforce — and their insistence on good corporate citizenship will continue to influence decisions in the boardroom, at the polls and at the box office for years to come.