At the Market Research Society Conference in March, reported that Unilever CEO Paul Polman urged the industry to get involved in larger societal issues. He stated that we are in a “leadership moment for the market research profession” and that “by prioritizing social issues, business success will follow.” Mr. Polman challenged the audience to realize that “business as usual is not the answer.”

Historically, “business as usual” dictated that a corporation should generate increasing earnings for its shareholders. With some exceptions, the view was that the shareholders used the earnings in whatever manner they preferred, including gifts to charity or affecting the societal issues of the day. The business focused on earning profits; shareholders were responsible for distributing/spending profits.

For several years now, we have heard about the Millennial workforce’s desire for an activist workplace where volunteering and social activism were valued.  Now, we hear the CEO of the world’s third largest CPG company stating that social issues “lead to” – rather than “are a result of” – business success. Mr. Polman suggests that corporations have a social responsibility first and a shareholder responsibility second and appears to have a two-fold purpose:  (1) to activate companies to be more socially responsible, and (2) to use social responsibility as a strategy leading to greater business success. Both are significant diversions from the traditional role of companies.

So, which road shall we take? Should companies (and researchers) continue to focus almost exclusively on providing increasing returns to shareholders or should they take the road less traveled and put first priority on being socially responsible? Each company (and researcher) must decide for itself. The two options are distinctly different.  Which way will you choose?

Paul Polman’s raising of this issue coincides with another industry initiative to bring a sense of community and social activism to the MR industry. In January, a group of researchers formed the Marketing Research Education Foundation (MREF). It is an independent foundation with a mission to, “unifyinspire and activate the marketing research community to focus its collective resources to educate children worldwide.” The founding board members are: Steve Schlesinger, Carla Lindeman, Ed Sugar, Steve Quirk, Don Marek, Howard Gershowitz and myself.

MREF debuted at the Quirks Event in Brooklyn in February where it presented a check for $5,000 to Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to the training and education of disadvantaged youth. In honor of MRA’s role in establishing MREF, another $5,000 contribution was made to Southside Early Childhood Center in St. Louis at MRA’s Corporate Researchers Conference (CRC). Another MREF grant went to Children of Hope School in Thomazeau, Haiti, a school of 200 children in a very poor part of that country. 

In 2016, MREF hopes to step up its programs with grants, service days and a significant service trip for researchers to travel and serve together. You will hear more about these initiatives in the coming weeks.

Whether you are Unilever or a home-based researcher, the prioritization of social responsibility is a decision you will have to make.  You are at a crossroads. Which road will you take?