This Christmas, business has become political


Christmas is postmodern this year. The television adverts have become wonderfully intertextual. Waitrose is poking fun at its sister John Lewis’s Elton John film (they share an ad agency, adam&eveDDB). And Iceland has borrowed a film about orangutans made originally for Greenpeace (they also share an agency, Mother).

The Iceland story is particularly interesting. This is not high-minded, middle-class Waitose: it’s a downmarket company pushing an ethical message – about the dangers of palm oil, and why it’s therefore removing it from all its own-label products. And it’s pushing this message at Christmas, when you’d expect bland films of party buffets and people singing in the snow.

The message, in fact, is not just ethical but political. For that reason, this television advert can’t actually be shown on British television – another postmodern move. Claims that it was ‘banned’ aren’t quite true, but have certainly ramped up the buzz. As I write this, it’s been viewed 5,437,584 times on YouTube.

This story is a small sign of a bigger phenomenon. 2018 may be remembered as the year business became political. Many companies are now speaking out, for example, on Theresa May’s Brexit plan. Across the Atlantic, Nike produced a film featuring Colin Kaepernick, the controversial American football player and civil rights activist. And there are many more examples. Increasingly, it seems, businesses want to change the world they live in.

Back at the start of the year, three CEOs indicated the direction of thought at the top of big business. BlackRock’s Larry Fink wrote: ‘Companies must ask themselves: what role do we play in the community?’ More startlingly, Brian Chesky of airbnb said: ‘It’s clear that our responsbiloty isn’t just to our employees, our shareholders, or even to our community – it’s also to the next generation’. And deeper still, Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman (who has just announced his retirement) tweeted: ‘Business cannot function long term if societies fail’.

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, people no longer trust governments or NGOs to change society. Instead, ‘business is now expected to be an agent of change’. And new research from Wolff Olins and CitizenMe, published last week, also suggests that people think business should be a force for change.

The survey shows that business should start by changing itself – in fundamental ways. Indeed, people question four of the deepest beliefs in today’s business world: the worship of scale, the insistence on corporate control, the craze for speed, and even the idea of customer-centricity. This is revolutionary stuff. In fact, only 6% of people think business should carry on the same.

We’re in an age where the relationship between people and business (and government) is problematic, and needs to be redefined. This will mean new thinking, new models, and probably conflict.

But in the meantime, we could probably all do with a peaceful Christmas.

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