Creating Social Value Blog / Corporate Social Relevance

Values, Value, or Politics?

By Cheryl Y. Kiser, Executive Director of The Lewis Institute & the Babson Social Innovation Lab.

For many years we have been in conversation with our students and business leaders about the changing role of business in society. We have discussed the challenges of doing well (economic value) and doing good (social value) simultaneously. We have also observed that the boundaries between government, business, and civil society have become increasingly blurred over time.

That blur took on a new dimension for those who were glued to the TV watching the Super Bowl. Last week, two great things happened for us here in Patriots’ Nation. First, the enormous and surprising win by our team and the powerful sense that anything is possible. The second great thing was to see a portfolio of Super Bowl ads that showcased values through the advertising of a company’s products and services. In our MBA class, Leading for Social Value, we had rich discussions about the ads which seemed to be addressing issues that are usually in the domain of politicians, NGOs, and advocates.

Even though the majority of these ads were created long before the start of the Super Bowl, the timing and context matters as they came on the heels of a tough couple of weeks where core American values were challenged. These ads seemed to be in response to the events happening within the political realm and our new world order here in the US. Issues like immigration, equal pay for women, gender equality, and diversity and inclusion, were front and center of some of the ads, and activated conversations about the role of business leadership in expressing and living into a company’s values.

This expression of values, business value, and politics was powerful.

Some in our class thought the ads were too political while others believed that business leadership was finally stepping up and showing their courage about real dilemmas that plagued their employees, customers, and key stakeholders. Leaders from companies like Starbucks, Chobani, Airbnb, and Nike have put their core values up front and are sharing that with the world through both their messaging and their actions. Much of our discussion revolved around whether or not businesses have earned the right, the expertise, and the permission to address social issues. Were the ads purely a manipulation of our emotions or were they designed to be a public discussion around who the company is, the values it wants to portray, and a reminder of their true “why?”

Were the ads political? Were they an expression of values? Or, did they create value for the business and for society? Whatever you believe, one thing is evident: the lines between who solves and addresses societal issues are more blurred than ever. Last Sunday night, we all saw business leadership stepping up and putting their money where their values are. And that was a very public showing of the changing role of business in society that we’ve been observing for years. In the context of today’s political climate, no matter who you are or who you voted for, taking a stand for the right thing is always good whether or not they pulled on our collective heartstrings or not.