What does staying relevant mean for businesses today?

Post Date
01 January 2023
Read Time
7 minutes

This article has been written by Victoria Hartley from Corporate Citizenship, now part of SLR. It was published as part of the Corporate Citizenship monthly briefing, which you can sign up for here. If you'd like to find out more about the author please see Victoria's profile on the Corporate Citizenship website.

Being relevant has always been a must for business. In our 2021 Actions for Business report, we stated that the events of 2020 and transformations in society over the last decade – climate change, millennials, technology, social media, stakeholder expectations – have not only increased the importance of staying relevant, but have also changed the fundamentals of what being relevant is.

2020 saw many companies step up and take action, and when we think of companies that demonstrated relevance, many examples come to mind.

Underpinned by a Theory of Change, Unilever’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was quick and far reaching. From protecting employees against pay cuts and redundancies, to additional support for their SME suppliers, to injecting funds into existing campaigns, to repurposing operations and product innovation, Unilever’s response addressed a wide range of local and global challenges. More recently, as the impact of the pandemic has started to play out, Unilever has continued to take action to address relevant issues. For example, extending its 2014 commitment to pay all employees a living wage, Unilever has pledged that by 2030, everyone who directly provides goods and services to the company will earn at least a living wage or income.

IKEA used its role as an ambassador of home life and home love, to urge people in Spain to social distance and #stayhome during the pandemic. More recently it has launched a furniture buy-back and re-sale scheme which, as part of IKEA’s drive to become “climate positive” by 2030, incentivises customers to be part of this journey, by returning used IKEA goods. As the second-hand market continues to grow rapidly and shopping habits change, this scheme has successfully linked consumer behaviours and priorities to IKEA’s own sustainability journey.

LEGO is a company that stays relevant, despite the core product remaining relatively unchanged for 60 years. Films and product partnerships aside, LEGO’s relevance is brought to life through its commitment to its core values, and as “play well” (imagination, creativity, fun, learning, caring) came into its own in 2020, LEGO successfully applied these values where it really mattered, from support for children of NHS care workers to school curriculum activities. The Everyone is awesome set, and the story behind it, also highlight LEGO’s commitment to wider social issues. Beyond this, LEGO is ensuring the product stays relevant through the innovation in its design relating to the circular economy, and its sustainability commitments that include an aim that all packaging will be made from renewable or recycled materials by 2025.

So what’s the key to staying relevant? In order to deliver true value – for business and society – relevance shouldn’t happen by accident, and we have identified three key considerations that stem from the basic definition of relevance: The quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.

  1. Be connected

Business can no longer exist within a silo, and must be part of wider society. While any company can get lucky – saying or doing the right thing at apparently the right time – staying relevant requires an understanding of what matters to stakeholders and your role as a business in addressing those matters. Understanding the needs and expectations of stakeholders isn’t a new concept. Materiality increasingly provides insight into key issues, but being relevant requires more than a snapshot; it requires an investment into dynamic engagement and an ongoing watch on the world around you.

Co-op is one company that has made that investment. Based on a long-standing commitment to supporting local communities, Co-op decided in 2018 that it wanted to ensure its support was targeting and addressing the most important issues. Work began on the Community Wellbeing Index – a tool that would do just this. Understanding priority issues from the perspective of individuals within communities was important to Co-op, and so a large-scale engagement process was undertaken in partnership with The Young Foundation, involving 15 community workshops across the UK. From an overall definition of community wellbeing, a scoring structure was developed using nine domains under three key pillars – People, Place and Relationships. A further partnership with Geolytix reviewed reliable open data sources to feed into the 50+ indicators within the index, which measure the conditions for community wellbeing in more than 28,000 “locales” (communities) across all four nations of the UK. A huge undertaking, but an investment that has enabled Co-op to understand priority needs within local communities and ensure support is directed accordingly. Crucially in the context of staying relevant, Co-op recognises this can’t be a one-off static process – as a result, data within the index is refreshed once a year.

  1. Be appropriate

Appropriate action flows out of being connected. Engagement enables companies to understand what they need to do and how their actions will be received, but there are other important factors to consider beyond engagement.

McDonald’s, Louis Vuitton and PrettyLittleThing all received backlash in 2020 against actions or words that were deemed inappropriate, out of touch or insincere. BrewDog, a carbon-negative B-corp, had its reputation as a pioneer of purpose rocked recently by a series of claims from ex-employees. This highlighted the importance of relevant action being underpinned by wider and comprehensive responsible business practices.

So the actions associated with staying relevant, must be underpinned by a confidence in wider risk management and behaviours. They should also go beyond lip service.

  1. Be authentic

Last weekend, my two sons chose Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pops on an ice cream run to the local shop. Originally championed by its founders, Ben & Jerry’s is known for campaigning on topical and relevant social issues. Now owned by Unilever, the commitment to campaigning remains central to the brand story. Behind a simple product statement about “love, peace and ice cream” was a detailed positioning on peace and social justice, alongside the other issues the company is committed to and the action it is taking – from addressing issues within its supply chain to campaigning and fundraising.

A recent conversation highlighted both the role of authenticity within relevance, and also the impact that staying relevant can have on the business model of small businesses. Brewgooder was set up with the purpose of going beyond making good beer, to beer doing good, by providing clean water and empowering the lives of others. While driven by personal passion, the company launched at a time when the offer was undoubtably relevant. The founder’s belief is that if you are a business built on an authentic north star, then you might dip in and out of relevancy, but it is those that chase relevancy that are at risk of coming across as inauthentic. That said, remaining relevant does require flexibility, and the last 18 months have tested the company’s business model, as it considered how to remain relevant to customers, during a time when local needs suddenly felt as important as global ones. Brewgooder responded by building on an existing authentic mission with social campaigns that responded to the local impacts of Covid-19. For example, a product series that highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts industry, and another that aimed to give back to NHS workers.

So what is our takeaway from all of this?

  • Relevance is increasingly important, but also increasingly complex – companies need to understand the new factors involved in staying relevant in the eyes of their stakeholders.
  • Commitment to and investment in being connected are key. This should be an ongoing, dynamic, two-way process that informs thinking, strategy and action.
  • Being authentic and ensuring this authenticity is underpinned by a comprehensive strategy that addresses all ESG risks, will help to ensure that you maximise the opportunity that comes with being relevant.

If you would like to talk to us about how we can help you engage with your stakeholders, create strategies to effectively address risk and underpin action, and stay relevant, please get in touch.

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