The Role of Brands in Empowering Citizens in a New Era

enso + NYU Social Entrepreneurship Program hosted a panel and dinner conversation on where we go from here.

Last week, coinciding with the first day of UN General Assembly week in New York City, we hosted our third annual conversation with leaders about the role for brands in empowering citizens and creating positive impact.

This year’s conversation was different; the cultural, political and environmental climate have created a new level of urgency from citizens, companies and cities, with people in all walks of life feeling an immediate and heightened desire to be part of constructive paths forward. People want to be part of answering fundamental questions on what kind of culture we want to create, how to react to some of the most powerful protests and storms in history, and according to a majority of Americans, an unprecedented crisis of competence at the federal level.

To discuss this moment in time, the responsibility — and opportunity — brands and business leaders have, we assembled a diverse panel with the NYU Social Entrepreneurship Program in SoHo. NYU grad and founding member of enso, Carla Fernandez, moderated a conversation with Katie Hunt-Morr (Virgin Unite), Mark Anthony Thomas (New York City Economic Development Corporation), Danielle Silber (American Civil Liberties Union), and Dana Rosenberg (KIND Healthy Snacks). Afterwards, the conversation continued over dinner with Liza Vadnai (RED), Piers Bradford (Project Everyone), David Johnson (Act 4 Entertainment), Eunice Rho (ACLU), Zac Russell and Rachel Botos (NYU Social Entrepreneurship Program).

Some key themes that emerged from the panel discussion, Q&A and dinner afterwards included:

  • Rapid evolution of brand’s engagement in purpose: just ten years ago, the norm for companies to engage in meaningful activities was to write an annual check to a non-profit (that may or may not have been related to the core business activity); fast-forward ten years, and many companies have evolved towards taking strong, principled stands on a variety of issues. We’ve seen business leaders take extraordinary stands against the Administration’s social policies; we’ve seen major commitments to social justice and civil liberties groups, and it’s now increasingly common for purpose to be discussed as a core business strategy, not just an after-thought. This ‘flips the script’ — from corporate social responsibility as nice-to-have, to a central operating system of business. Companies are realizing that they’ve externalized the cost of democracy — it’s no longer a nice to have but an imperative for the future and the future of their business.
  • Companies and leaders are responding in a more human way: this year, many companies and business leaders have chosen to take stands on issues that matter to the people — employees, customers, communities — whether or not the issues are directly related to their business. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, was referenced as an example; having previously kept his values private, this year he took strong stands on citizen privacy, on LGBT issues, on the travel ban, on DACA, and on the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; this from a company that has not traditionally led the charge. And Apple is not alone; over 160 companies from the tech industry alone stood up against the travel ban.
  • By coming from a human place, brands are benefiting: Lyft publicly opposed the travel ban as being “antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values”, committed $1M to the ACLU and enabling riders to take part by rounding up their fare and donating the difference to the ACLU. This helped create a very strong contrast with Uber’s values and behavior, which has significantly closed the gap in application installs. And Apple’s new level of engagement has not diminished its path towards an $800 billion+ market capitalization. Consumers are now demanding for and rewarding companies and brands who reflect and manifest from their own values. In this, everyday citizens are forcing brands to be more transparent and aligned with progressive values and there’s still more opportunity as customers to have conversations with brands to hold them accountable to what they say is of value to them.
  • Beyond consumers, employees are driving values from within: the shift towards mission-oriented business has traditionally been propelled by consumer preference; but increasingly talent acquisition and retention is driving companies’ agendas. Investing in the best people increasingly means investing in accordance with the best people’s values.
  • Cities becoming more human, and more important: whether you call it the resistance or not, the path forward is being increasingly defined by cities. Cities have taken strong leadership positions on a range of issues including the climate; international investors are contacting cities to identify investment opportunities rather than the federal government.
  • Despite the rapid evolution, there’s a long way to go: several people pointed out that brands have been selective in the issues they’ve engaged in, often ignoring less visible, but highly significant issues like supply chain responsibility and contract workers’ rights. One critical way of looking at this is that companies are acting only when visible and expedient to their interests; a more forgiving interpretation is that every company is on a journey — ‘there is no perfect company’ — and we should celebrate and encourage positive momentum. ‘We let the global corporate machine go so far in the wrong direction — we should embrace companies that are on the journey back’. Transparency is fueling ‘an activist culture’, and companies have a duty to act authentically, or risk a significant backlash.

Thanks to NYU, our panelists, and everyone that joined us at the Puck Building.


enso is a mission-driven creative company. We build mission-driven brands, and shared missions. See: enso.co, and our thinking at medium.com/enso

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