Every company would like to be like Apple. Not just because those giant revenues and profit margins would satisfy any shareholder but because the company has produced the right results in the right way: by using design to charge a premium for beautiful products. That focus on design has led to an entirely new way of thinking spreading through the business world over the last few years. Companies as large as Proctor & Gamble and GE have turned to “design thinking” as a solution for producing more efficient processes, products better suited to customers and greater innovation.
BusinessWeek has described how GE’s “best and brightest” managers start their Technical Leadership Development Course by reading comics and describing their toughest problems in haikus. In 2012, Mauro Porcini was nabbed from his position as 3M’s first chief design officer to take on the same role at PepsiCo. “They want to bring design thinking to every brand touch point–packaging, communications, online experiences,” Porcini told Fast Company at the time.
They may now be regretting that decision. Even some of design thinking’s biggest advocates are rowing back. In an article in Fast Company, Bruce Nussbaum, one of the idea’s pioneers, has said that the concept has ossified and may even be doing harm. He’s advocating an entirely new approach: Creative Intelligence. In the same magazine, Helen Walters, another leading advocate, has noted that other companies have struggled to define the term and to replicate the early success of competitors, and she warned companies that design thinking won’t save them.
But while few companies have ended up churning out products as beautifully designed as the classic iPod or the Macbook Air, areas that have seen great innovation over the last few years are green initiatives and social responsibility. Walmart has run a sustainable design competition; eBay has built a Green Team; United Natural Foods has built the sixth largest solar array to power one of its plants. Design thinking might not have produced sleek products (or customer service responses delivered in haiku) but it has helped to change the impact that companies make on the world around them.
That matters. A recent report by Ernst & Young into the value of publishing corporate sustainability reports listed seven benefits enjoyed by companies that tell shareholders about their social and environmental efforts. These included improve financial performance; greater access to capital; higher efficiency; better risk management; “reduced negative social influence”; higher employee loyalty and recruitment; and improved reputation.
But those benefits rely on the degree to which companies successfully get that message across.
At the moment, the message is being delivered in a couple of ways.
The first is through dedicated publications. About 80 percent of the companies of the Fortune 500 now publish CSR reports. These have developed into glossy publications that rival only corporate annual reports in their planning, design and execution. Companies commission professional photographers to travel around the word, take pictures of their plants and rigs in hard-to-reach locations and use their writers to tell the stories of how their local branches are benefitting far-flung regions. We see pictures of solar plants, recyclable packaging and mostly happy employees enjoying the kinds of opportunity and training that only a caring company can deliver.
The second is through websites. In addition to making PDFs of their reports available for download, some companies are also creating entire mini-sites complete with sections on society, energy, the environment and sustainability. Anyone interested in understanding the innovative ways in which a Fortune 500 firm such as BP America is minimizing the damage its work causes to the environment can browse the pages, look at the pictures and read the articles.
Both those strategies though, depend on interested visitors choosing to learn about the CSR work of large corporations. They have to know the information is available and they need a reason to seek it out.
Write It And Some Will Come; Post It And You Get Reach
One of the benefits of social media is that it allows companies to push out information and to do it in a targeted way. Although a company benefits most when a visitor reads the content on its Facebook page, the reach a post can win means that the innovation of its CSR efforts can be placed in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise have known about them.
For a company under reputational pressure, like BP America, that would be particularly valuable.
And yet, despite the increasing amounts of efforts being put into planning creative solutions, gathering information about CSR efforts and producing glossy reports about them, little is being done to push those messages on social media.
Ford, for example, has a long list of initiatives that it has worked into its designs to improve the sustainability of its production processes. Those initiatives include the use of “sustainable fabric”; clean diesel for heavy-duty pick-ups; the use of paint fumes as fuel at its Michigan truck plant; and sustainable fabric in the Ford Escape. (By using post-industrial recycled materials in the fabric of its seats, the car company is expected to save up to 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide and more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity.) All of those projects are the sort of information you can typically find in CSR reports.
And yet if you look at the social media streams run by Ford, one of the most forward-thinking companies in terms of its use of social media, you’d be hard pressed to find any sign of any of these innovations.
The Ford Escape is greener and more innovative than it looks.
The social media strategy on the Ford Explorer page is largely to post pretty pictures of cars and to ask a question to increase reach and engagement. The strategy is largely successful with a typical engagement rate of between 200 and 250 likes for each post, but the closest we come to the presence of a green message on the Ford Explorer page, despite the company’s investment in sustainable fabric design, is the cross-page use of the #OneTakeAdventure hashtag. The company uses images and stories to show what a customer can do on a single tank of gas.
The use of a single tank might be green but the message is more about economics than environmentalism.
The same coyness about promoting CSR efforts can be found on other corporate Facebook pages.
Walmart produces one of the glossiest CSR reports of Fortune 500 companies, with more than 170 pages on social responsibility, environmental responsibility, company responsibility and local responsibility. Its sustainable design competition produced a standards scorecard for evaluating products for energy efficiency, durability, upgradability, endoflife, packaging, and use of innovative materials. All of that information is placed on an animated mini site which is easy to read and follow.
And yet very little of that information is shared on the company’s Facebook page. We see pizzas and tablets, drinks and CD special offers, reminders for special occasions and suggestions for “unbirthday” treats. Occasionally, perhaps once a month, we’re shown a glimpse behind the scenes at how the food is delivered or we’re shown the people who straighten the shelves.
Walmart’s Facebook page occasionally shows its staff.
It’s tempting to assume that there’s a carefully thought out reason for the lack of CSR information in corporate Facebook feeds. If the social media managers responsible for the deciding the companies’ strategies had tested CSR content and found that users were more interested in products, special offers or one tank adventures than they are in innovations in sustainable sourcing, then they’d be right to drop that content from their strategy.
But that isn’t the case. Walmart typically receives around 1,300 likes for each post it publishes on its Facebook page. That was about the same number of likes won by a video showing how fresh produce reaches the company’s stores. Another post about an elderly associate who plays guitar and sings for the customers picked up more than 3,600 likes.
Earth Day Matters
Earth Day provides one useful moment to test users’ willingness to receive content related to the environment. HP’s Facebook page is mostly a collection of product images, with occasional variation in the form of facts, reviews and product features. That’s despite the fact that the company recently completed building a 1.1megawatt, 6,256solar panel system at its data center and offices in San Diego, and is now participating in Austin’s Green Choice program to buy almost 19.9 million kilowatt hours of wind energy from wind farms in western Texas for two more data centers.
To mark Earth Day, HP’s Facebook page uploaded a video to show that it’s recycled two billion water bottles into ink cartridges. That post picked up more than 300 likes, about par compared to the surrounding posts.
So inserting CSR messages into a corporate Facebook page won’t necessarily turn off users. But much depends on the kind of content being shared. The Boeing Careers page also posted a video to mark Earth Day, one which called on users to “recommit to building a better planet every day…[ and learn] more about the variety of ways we work to enhance our environmental performance.
That post was one of the few that month that failed to rack up likes in triple figures.
It’s possible that Earth Day itself makes users more willing than on other days to receive content about companies doing good. (If that is the case, then those special occasions mark valuable opportunities for the people responsible for determining their company’s content to share some of their CSR stories.)
But it’s more likely that users do want to know about the information published by companies in CSR reports and shared on CSR mini sites, provided that information can be shared in a way that’s interesting, informative and entertaining. Focusing on extraordinary employees can work (particularly the singing and dancing ones) but so can infographics, and even bare statistics accompanied by an attractive image of a location may be enough to generate likes while still promoting the firm.
Design thinking might not have produced as many blue sky ideas as its proponents hoped but it is helping the environment. And that’s a story companies should be sharing.