Words matter. But actions matter a whole lot more.

by Jun 10, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

86% of Americans expect companies to stand for something other than just making money. Brands and Stands, 2018

Words matter. But actions matter a whole lot more.

I’ve struggled for the last couple of weeks. I’ve struggled in the same way we’ve all struggled, trying to make sense of how the world got so crazy, how the country we love got so harshly divided, and how racism and hatred can still be so alive and present.

And as the CEO of a communications firm, that in and of itself isn’t particularly diverse, I’ve struggled with how to recommend our clients communicate about all of it.

If you follow our point of view much, you know our research reveals that Americans want to buy from and work for good companies. And “good” has long been defined in the minds of Americans as good for the planet and good for people. Thus, at Shelton Group, we’ve been advocating for some time that “sustainability” can’t just mean “environment.” It has to mean sustainability of society – which means sustainability of people, the planet and our economic structure.

I’ve had a hard time getting traction with that idea. Even though many companies talk about stakeholder capitalism and a triple-bottom line approach, in reality, sustainability and CSR have long lived in separate silos. And certainly economics/profitability have lived separately from all of that. Acts of “good” like philanthropy and environmental efforts have been seen as budget line items, not as economic drivers by the vast majority of major companies.

The ESG framework that’s been embraced by Wall Street has changed that. Now that companies are being ranked on their triple bottom line approach – and Wall Street is making investment decisions based on that – economic value is now well tied to people and the planet. And it’s become clear, at least for publicly traded companies, they simply won’t get away with making money at the expense of people and the planet.

It’s also become clear to many CEOs that they can’t let moments of such great turmoil like the multiple moments we’re in now go by without saying something.

But what do you say? Therein lies the rub.

Many CEOs and companies have put out statements like, “we stand in solidarity with Black communities” and “we are heartbroken…” and/or outraged “…over the death of George Floyd” and some variety of “this shouldn’t keep happening.” Many have pledged to use their power for good…but the details tend to be fuzzy or altogether absent. And social media has noticed.

Many CEOs have been taken to task and pressed on how many people of color are on their boards and executive teams. There’s even a spreadsheet circling online tracking statements from tech company CEOs along with their revenues, number of employees and percentage of Black employees.

I’ve seen polling data related to the pandemic indicating that nice sentiments, a la, “we’re in this together,” are not only wearing thin, they’re turning people off. In fact, that whole “say something nice so people will think better about your brand” approach has been pointedly parodied to perfection here (and you should watch it).

In short, when a CEO decries racial inequality and social injustice without getting his/her own house in order, it’s the equivalent of our elected officials saying, “our hearts and prayers are with the families” after yet another mass shooting. Words don’t create change. Actions do.

Ben & Jerry’s got this right. If you haven’t read their statement, it’s here. Now, as a brand that’s long been about social activism and as a company that expressed public support for the Black Lives Matter four years ago, their voice is already more authentic than the voice of many companies. But any company could do what Ben & Jerry’s does in this post: call out what’s actually happening – an unconscious acceptance of white supremacy – and point to four specific actions that can begin to dismantle it.

Ben & Jerry’s has pointed to things that need to happen outside their organization. I advise you to take action within your own organization and then talk about what you’re doing and what you’re learning. There’s an excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review that can get you started right now.

Companies that embed a triple-bottom line approach into their normal course of business are the ones that will thrive in the future. Our ongoing market insights reveal this, and I’ve written a lot about it. In short, it’s not enough to say you care about people and the planet. You must show you care.

That goes for me, too. If you look at our team you won’t see a single Black person. A decade or so ago we had a lot of internal discussions about this and concluded that we weren’t not hiring African American applicants; we weren’t getting any applications (we’re in Knoxville, TN, for goodness sake, we convinced ourselves). I feel embarrassed and pained as I write that – I see what bullshit it is. We haven’t really made an effort, and that will change. We’re beginning conversations with universities now to point us in the right direction of potential associates with diverse backgrounds and points of view. We were mostly in step with everything in the HBR article mentioned above, and we’re closing the remaining gaps. And we’re hiring an HR person who will be tasked with ensuring that we proactively recruit people from all walks of life. Because how else will we be able to holistically advise our clients if we can’t give them a holistic, collective, diverse point of view? How can any company bring products and services to market if they only see the market as white because that’s their collective life experience? And how can we lead ourselves out of the enormous global challenges we face if we don’t awaken to and acknowledge our own shortcomings, take action to solve them and then share the story of that journey? This is what the world demands from us. And it’s what our children deserve from us. Take action.

News of the Week
Why Ben & Jerry’s statement on white supremacy is so extraordinary – CNN Business

Ben & Jerry’s founders have always been clear about their values, and they have, once again, made their position on racial injustice known. For those concerned that bold company statements prioritizing people over politics will negatively affect profit — think again. Ben & Jerry’s founders and CEO have consistently positioned themselves as the leaders of a company that demands ‘different’ and wholly rejects the status quo that continues to subjugate harm on an entire population of Americans. Read the CNN article here.

Brands Have Nothing Real to Say About Racism – The Atlantic

“Instead of taking concrete actions, many companies interpret consumers’ push for social responsibility as a strong desire for them to make vague statements about even vaguer values, such as “equality” and “community,” when something racist dominates the news.” Amanda Mull of The Atlantic exposes the shallow nature of so many corporate commitments made in the wake of recent tragedies, and asserts that what we need right now is strong, decisive action and compelling commitments to combat racial injustice. Mulls calls for large companies to get uncomfortable, to get loud, and to say something … even if it’s a little risky. Read more.

In a way, Covid-19 has made us all fringe consumers.

And today’s fringe will shape tomorrow’s opportunities.

Seeing into the Future: How to build resiliency in a post-Covid world

When a crisis like Covid-19 hits, ideas held by fringe consumers often flood into the mainstream. Once we’re out of crisis mode, those once-fringe ideas won’t just evaporate. They’ll shape how your company builds resilient relationships with consumers, employees and even investors. Our latest report is your head start to being the company you want to be – that consumers want you to be – in a post-Covid world.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Deirdre Irwin

    I would like to hear your thoughts about B Corporations. I have been following this designation for a few years and it seems that their requirements are “good” on many levels.

  2. Libby Rice

    THANK YOU for this. All of it.

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