We live in an era of purpose-driven brands, yet we seem to continually be awash in corporate scandals: VW emissions, Wells Fargo, Facebook/Cambridge Analytica etc. Why is this happening?  There are likely many causes, but chief among them is a gap between the values companies present to the world and their business model.

This may have always been the case, but what has changed is that it’s easier to see the disconnections. Thanks to transparency, people can see inside companies now. We live in a world where what can be known will be known. If your financial policies don’t treat people or nature well, consumers can see it–and increasingly it shapes what they think of your brand.

This changes the equation for marketing. The marketer’s job has always been about creating demand– giving people reasons to buy your products or services. But in the age of digital-social-mobile, it’s more and more about alignment–removing reasons for people not to buy your product. This requires viewing the business model through a different lens, a human-centered lens.

How a marketer makes money should be able to pass a basic fairness test. If it doesn’t, you’re creating risk. For what seems clever from a financial perspective could end up costing you big in the arena of public opinion. It’s hard to grow sales and hire talent if you’re seen as a pariah.

Here are five questions to help marketers look at their business models through a human lens. It’s intended to help them see potential trouble spots, on the premise that it’s best to find out for yourself before someone finds out for you—and then tells the rest of the world all about it.

  1. The externalities question: Does your business model put costs onto others in pursuit of lower prices or higher profits? Externalizing costs onto others only creates stakeholders you don’t want to hear from and unseen long-term liabilities.
  2. The complexity question: Are your internal processes a labyrinth when it comes to paying suppliers, handling customer complaints, or otherwise parting with money? Do you have a lot of fine print and long user agreements? This added friction may save money, but in an era of straight talk it’s also costing you goodwill. Like kudzu, complexity usually grows on top of bad soil; ethical business practices tend to be simple.
  3. The circle question: Who’s in and who’s out? Has your company drawn a circle that excludes the people who make your product or the people who make the ingredients that go into your product? If so, you’ve put them in your shadow and social media runs on shadow energy.
  4. The “We didn’t expect THAT to happen” question: Is your huge success in solving one problem creating others you never anticipated? For instance, Airbnb is helping people monetize latent assets, but as the platform scales it is causing rents to rise in many places. If you’re Airbnb, is this your problem to fix? No, but you do need to acknowledge it as an untended consequence of your business and participate in a solution.
  5. The honest living question: Do you dread discussing how your company makes money? It should be apparent that the value you provide to your customers and society at large justifies your right to a profit. If that isn’t the case, you need a new business model.

There are scary times to be a marketer. The consumer is now “in charge” of much of what marketers formerly controlled in terms of media and messages, and we live in a world where anything a company does can suddenly become part of the public sphere. Where to find solid ground amidst all the noise? Focus on where you stand: The place you work, the people you work with, and what makes it all thrive. The one thing your company can control these days is your values and how you live them. Make sure your business model lives up to those values.

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