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Columbia Business Monthly

Why Responsible Brands Are Here To Stay

By Teresa Coles

President, Riggs Partners and Co-author, The Responsible Brand Toolkit

There’s a rising tide of consciousness among us, resulting in the very real need for businesses to lead with greater purpose and intention. Book after book, article upon article has been written on the subject, and leaders who are paying attention know: There is real change taking place.

How do we know this? Ask any CEO if employee expectations are different than they were five years ago. If vendor choices are more scrutinized. If regulatory issues are tighter. If internal communications and alignment are more challenging. If customers are more discerning. If they feel their brand is under a microscope.

Yes, yes and yes.

Many large corporations saw this coming 10-15 years ago, when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives began to surface. Today, that conversation has expanded to include Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives, which expand on CSR by adding measurable key outcomes. Leading corporations and popular retailers have led the way in developing advanced policies and practices that have positioned their organizations as conscious leaders, sought-after employers and preferred brands. They’ve positioned themselves as Responsible Brands.

Some may say this work is germane to large companies or even global operations, not to smaller businesses, and that the responsibility for an organization to stand for something — and to embed that promise into their culture, business strategy and brand marketing — lies at the feet of larger enterprises only.

Believe that at your own peril.

Why? Because every business has had to reckon with its character over the last 12 months. Whether a national corporation, regional business, or main street retailer, we’ve been impacted by a global pandemic that has shaken all of us, and all of our businesses, to the core.

For example, we know companies that entered the Covid-19 crisis with a strong, highly attuned culture have withstood the impact better than competitors that may have had less clarity around their culture. These organizations were better positioned to communicate effectively and lead their employees through a period of unprecedented uncertainty.

They were able to show their teams how seemingly unimaginable workplace challenges were not only within their reach, but completely attainable. They had the kind of cultural rudders in place to withstand the shock of Covid-19 on the workplace and on the cycle of commerce. We saw the leaders of these companies emerge on every street corner, not just on the front pages of national business magazines.

What have we learned from all this? That we are accountable to each other. That our employees, customers, stakeholders and community rely on us as leaders to model the way and to meet a new set of profoundly different expectations. This is no longer a nice-to-do, but a business imperative.

Moving forward, I believe you’ll see a much greater emphasis on organizational health as a whole. Organizational health represents a wide variety of internal strategies that support a company’s ability to meet its highest calling. They encompass traditional HR practices and employee engagement as well as purpose-driven business practices such as diversity and inclusion, sustainability measures, social innovation and many others.

Organizational culture, as a subset of organizational health, focuses on building a workforce strategy in which employees know what the company believes in, the personal behaviors, performance standards and corporate policies that mirror that belief system, and the opportunities they have to make a positive impact in the world around them.

Pre-Covid, many companies relied on philanthropic donations and some employee volunteerism as evidence of their social consciousness. This kind of “purpose-washing” is a thin veil that has been permanently lifted. Both employees and customers now see through it, and it must be replaced with more systemic approaches to meeting real human needs, both inside and outside the organization.

What does this mean for your brand? As a leader, the strength of your brand begins and ends with you. You must look deep within your company, uncover and commit to its North Star, and put the systems in place to meet that goal in a way that inspires employees and motivates your customers. Continually reminding employees of the value of the organization’s work, and their contribution to that work, is key to building a strong culture that can withstand the kinds of workplace crises we’ve endured this past year.

A great way to start building a more intentional, responsible brand is by defining a new cultural platform, a social impact strategy that is seriously embedded into your overall business strategy, and a new brand platform that reflects the true character of your organization.

The times we’re living through have created an undisputable sense of urgency to get this right. That’s why Riggs Partners joined forces with our colleagues at verynice this past year to create a tool to help organizations through this journey. It’s the Responsible Brand Toolkit, a free curriculum designed to teach businesses, nonprofit organizations, foundations and social enterprises how to build impactful, high-performing brands that meet the new standards before us.

Download the toolkit at and learn how aligning your organization’s culture, business strategy and brand marketing can help you become the kind of Responsible Brand all of your stakeholders now demand.