Last week was a big week. Shelton Group celebrated its 25th year in business, we pulled together a small group of clients for two days of deep discussion around sustainability-related marketing at our annual Inner Circle Symposium, and then, of course, there was the presidential election with the result that left many of us stunned and searching for answers.
There’s a common thread – and a piece of advice – I can see between all three of those events that’s worth digging into: go bold, even if it’s hard.
At Shelton Group’s 25th anniversary party, I attempted to answer the question, “How the hell have we managed to stay in business – and thrive – for 25 years?” Well, we haven’t always thrived. For the first half of our existence, we were a generalist marketing agency, like most, without any real point of distinction between other generalist agencies, except a commitment to doing creative grounded in research and strategy (and that wasn’t really all that differentiating). It wasn’t until we made the bold move to only focus in the sustainability arena – with an emphasis on energy and the environment – that we began to grow in a meaningful way and do our best work with tangible results.
That wasn’t an easy decision. Most people who own marketing and advertising agencies are creative folks who like the intellectual stimulation of being a Jack/Jill of all trades, and we tend to be pleasers. So specializing in one area, which means saying “no” to a whole bunch of potential clients and the opportunity to learn new industries, is excruciating. That’s why most firms are still slogging it out as generalists. Making a bold commitment to being the best at one thing is absolutely a way to drive business success … but it’s really, really hard to make the decision to do it and then stick with it.
At our annual Inner Circle Symposium, we covered the trends we’re tracking in the marketplace related to sustainability; Scripps Networks Interactive came in and shared some of the mindset shifts they’re seeing; we reviewed some of the sustainability and CSR-related advertising we’ve seen over the last year; EDF talked about their work with business; and we held a live focus group with Millennials to dig into their expectations of companies and products related to people and the planet. Again, the theme of “going bold” emerged:
- Want to earn loyalty with consumers? Make bold commitments to the environment and society and live up to them.
- Want to get a tremendous amount of PR and social media coverage? Make a bold move aligned with your brand values, like REI closing on Black Friday (see the case study to understand the power of this move).
- Want to get Americans to actually make their homes greener? Make the bold move of doing it for them and helping them have less to worry about. My favorite quote from the Scripps presentation: “Less is about shifting from my burden to my choice.”
- Want to drive real business outcomes related to sustainability? As EDF will tell you, make bold, public commitments and then make sure you have a good coach to help you through the “middle miles” of the marathon.
- Want to attract the best and brightest Millennials to come work for you? Make a bold move, like paying off their student loans.
And then there’s the election. For years at sustainability conferences I’ve heard, “Government’s not going to lead on the environment; business must.” That’s certainly true now. As I wrote last week, I don’t see any reason to believe the new administration will do anything positive for the environment and many reasons to believe they’ll take steps backwards on this front (Mr. Trump declared in his campaign rhetoric that he’ll kill the clean power plan and back away from the Paris accord).
At one of the aforementioned sustainability conferences this year, I heard someone say, “There’s no business case for a 2-degree increase in global temperatures,” and I agree. I believe savvier business leaders can absolutely see the supply chain and human capital disruptions that would result from letting our climate problems continue, and they’ll step up to do what they can to change those outcomes. My advice to them? Go bold, even if it’s hard. And it most likely will be very, very hard.