Tina Stowell Associates

You need to give love to receive love. (aka ‘make yourself useful’)

November 24th, 2010 | Posted in Uncategorized

An article by Chris Blackhurst in Monday’s Evening Standard caught my attention because the headline really annoyed me. I saw it first online via a tweet from @populuspolls (it refers to research they carried out) and it said: “Customers must love you – it’s key to company success”.

It’s such a lazy and meaningless thing to say – and it doesn’t do justice to what Chris Blackhurst actually wrote (I read the article properly when I picked up the paper later), the original Populus research, or the pamphlet published by TLG Ltd (the agency who commissioned the work).

The pamphlet is worth a proper read (only four pithy pages). It’s a bit ‘jargonistic’ in parts, but the basic message is that, organisations which show leadership by changing how they operate to deliver something important for customers (often at the expense of some profit) will generate public trust which in turn leads to more business, greater market share and a stronger reputation amongst stakeholders and customers.  Or as my Mum might say (and often does): ‘make yourself useful’.

I really buy into this (check out my own theory on my website) because it is simple and so obviously true. However, let’s be absolutely clear, delivery requires discipline, commitment and a genuine belief in what a company says it is trying to achieve. In other words, it’s hard work. Which is why the Evening Standard headline irritated me: that suggests the benefits of applying this discipline (ie, love and money) is what should motivate companies.  This is completely wrong and misses the point entirely.  The point of this kind of approach is that it is not motivated by self-interest.  It has to be authentic and that means it must be driven by an organisation’s genuine commitment to achieving ‘the something important’.  Indeed, so much so, it is willing to do so at some cost to itself.

I noticed in yesterday’s FT that Michael Skapinker had written sceptically about Unilever’s recent decision to launch a ‘sustainable living plan’. I don’t blame him (we’ve heard it all before). But because we have heard it all before and not been convinced by what we’ve heard, I was a little surprised that Paul Polman of Unilever was criticised for not talking like other CEOs.  It was noted he didn’t point to bottom line benefits of sustainability like everyone usually does, and indeed, when asked what investors would make of his plan he said: “Unilever has been around for 100-plus years. We want to be around for several hundred more years. So if you buy into this long-term value-creation model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don’t buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don’t put your money in our company.”

I’ve not studied Unilever’s plan in detail and have no idea if they followed the TLG model, but Skapinker’s article alone includes lots of evidence which suggests to me Mr Polman really means what he says and – because of that – his strategy could be a real winner.

Now, some might argue that Michael Skapinker’s article is proof that it’s impossible for this kind of strategy to be a winner amongst opinion-formers. I disagree. Don’t forget this kind of approach is hard work because it is based on what an organsation does and not what it says.  No-one will be won over immediately; everyone needs on-going evidence which is why success relies on consistency and commitment. Even though Michael Skapinker is sceptical, his article has highlighted that Unilever is different and willing to show leadership. For me at least, the CEO’s confidence in playing a longer game is very refreshing. If he and his team stick at their strategy, keep finding ways to show everyone they are doing just that and provide on-going evidence of the benefits it is realising for customers and the public at large, I am as certain as I can be that their trust rating will increase and their reputation with it. Who knows, in a few years’ time Unilever might enter the UK league of top 10 trusted companies.