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What We Can Learn from B Corps' Big Bets on Customer Engagement

Image credit: Stonyfield Organic

Today’s customers are choosing how to spend their dollars based on one of two factors: convenience or shared values. For example, Blue Apron, a grocery delivery company that makes it easier to cook healthy meals, is winning on convenience. But when you have the option of choosing between convenience services, as many customers do in the ride-hailing market, values determine the victor. Lyft is riding (pun intended) on the sharing-economy movement and gaining market share because of its commitment to fair practices with customers and employees. Customers tell their friends they “took a Lyft” as a signal of shared cultural values.

Values alignment is increasingly important to customers. In fact, two-thirds of customers are more willing to spend money on brands that take a shared stance on social and political issues they care about. Alignment means a nearly automatic uptick in customer lifetime value, enabling marketers to worry less about churn and focus more on authenticity. But the strength of this initial spark of connection must be reinforced by layers of trust built over time. Brands that link arms with a bigger-than-business purpose are, in subtle ways, trading marketing influence in favor of trust building. Is this scary? It doesn’t need to be.

A well-organized bright spot for building trust can be found among certified B Corps, companies committed to meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. B Corps are doing much more than clever marketing; they have some powerful moves that aspiring purpose-driven brands can borrow to increase trust with customers.

Let your values grow from the inside out

Once you’ve settled on your beyond-business purpose, it’s tempting to turn your marketing and corporate social responsibility teams loose to announce your commitments to the world. But instead of shouting it from the rooftops, funnel that exciting news through your employee base first. Rolling out brand purpose to employees is different than setting organizational directives such as sales targets or new product lines, because purpose gets to the “why” of your product, price or position. Employees will have a reflective response to how closely your purpose aligns with your current way of doing business. Begin this conversation by inviting employees to relate to the purpose as individuals, using their own values as a lens.

With the passionate support of returning co-founder Gary Hirschberg, Stonyfield Organics last month launched the “Make Earth Cool Again“ campaign. It blurs the lines between the brand, the family farms it relies on, employees and customers, calling on this entire community to take action on behalf of the values they all have in common. “Although we’ve never stopped working for healthy people and a healthy planet, everyone at Stonyfield agrees that the planet needs stronger voices now more than ever,” Hirshberg explained in a statement

Investing ample resources into employee engagement is a well-placed bet. Among millennials, 76 percent say they’d rather take a pay cut than work for a company with unethical business practices. Across the board, employee retention rates at the 2,100 B Corps are high. Building trust starts from the inside out; those shared values can then be used to guide everything your employees do on the company's behalf.

Carve out a counterculture

Within every cultural trend is a counterculture that becomes a segment all its own. B Corp Ben & Jerry’s was a counterculture choice in the ’90s, when the company’s commitment to quality ingredients set new standards in the industry. More recently, the company has brought its values to life through flavor partnerships that take subtle (or not so subtle) political positions, such as Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream or Empower Mint, which was part of the brand’s 2016 “Democracy Is in Your Hands” campaign. Food trends aside, the brand’s commitment to purpose is evidenced by more than just products: 30 percent of content on the brand’s homepage and 80 percent of its social feed is purpose-oriented and not directly about ice cream at all. Customers notice when brands voice their point of view in values-driven conversations, and these conversations layer on top of campaigns to increase trust.

Give purpose a seat at the table

Most brands will never start a movement of their own; they’re far more likely to join one in progress. Patagonia knows that it can be most effective in the environmental movement by mobilizing its customer base to protect the wilderness areas where its products are used.

To do something totally different with customers — not think of them merely as “buyers” — often requires a different team that brings a new definition of success. Patagonia’s Environmental Activism team and its recent launch of Patagonia Action Works — which links locals with skills to values-aligned volunteer opportunities, no puff jacket required — reflect a strategy of joining and fueling a movement in a way well-suited to the strengths of the brand. It doesn’t hurt that sales increase each time Patagonia takes a stand. Creating a business unit outside of traditional departments such as marketing or supply chain gives purpose a seat at the leadership table, where success is defined and investment decisions are made.

You don’t have to become a B Corp to adopt any of these values-driven approaches. And it’s true that going through the B Corp certification process can be daunting (at Context Partners, we found the help from B Lab extremely valuable in our own certification). The B Corp designation can, however, fuel your ability to make changes throughout your organization while serving as shorthand for customers who are looking for values in action.


Charlie Brown is CEO and founder of Context Partners. Charlie and his team pinpoint what’s important among groups, design engagements toward shared purpose and develop strategies to manage relationships at-scale for a brand or cause. His work has… [Read more about Charlie Brown]


Jensie is a creative strategist specializing in directing engaging brand experiences. She is a founding partner of Context Partners, where for eight years she led thought leadership at the firm through a custom publication, The Practice Papers, and designed…
[Read more about Jensie Miksich]


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