Two beer commercials aired during the Super Bowl - the biggest advertising platform of the year - weren't about beer at all, but about water: water stewardship and water for hurricane relief. During the Super Bowl!

Corporate social responsibility is no longer a dull but necessary sideshow for corporations; it has emerged as the key to reaching a wider and wider population of purpose-driven consumers, particularly among younger generations.

2017 was the year that brands in the US crossed from striving to communicate a general sense of social purpose into the realm of outspoken activism for specific causes. Brands took stands on such issues as immigration policy, climate change, national parks, diversity, and net neutrality - even when these issues weren't related to the company's business.

A 2017 survey by Cone Communications found that 63% of Americans were "hopeful businesses will take the lead to drive social and environmental change," and that 78% "want companies to address important social justice issues."

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, based on a global survey conducted in October and November 2017, showed "a fast recovering belief in CEOs (up from 37 percent to 44 percent), rewarded for speaking out on issues." Two-thirds of those surveyed trusted companies "to take specific actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions."

Edelman's executive summary said that "when government is distrusted and media no longer is perceived to serve as its watchdog, both NGOs and business can fill the role of providing reliable information about--and solutions for--the issues that people care about. Our study began 18 years ago with a focus on NGO trust; today, business and NGOs are viewed equally as the institutions holding the most hope for our respondents."

The pressure is on, and not only from consumers and the general public. Employees, another key stakeholder, want to work for companies that are socially proactive and whose values align with their own. Investors are piling on too, noting that values-driven corporate leadership helps maximize shareholder returns over the long term. In his famed annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote that "... society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate."

It's no wonder Super Bowl advertising has become a platform where companies show off their values and their activism. In 2017 a lumber company made headlines for running an ad on crossing the border, and Airbnb took the opportunity to address racism, reinforcing the anti-discriminatory message of its new policies on hosting. And this year in addition to the water ads, diversity and inclusion took the stage, as well as a call to support local business, a thank you to first responders, a moving story about cancer survivors, and a lighthearted ad where people come together from different religions, with the tagline "We're All One Team."

If your company hasn't done so already, this is the year it should align values, purpose and actions. It's time to engage, with transparency and authenticity, on the issues you believe in.

Published on: Feb 4, 2018