In a world facing many struggles, companies need to find a larger purpose than whatever product they make or service they sell, says “branding futurist” Simon Mainwaring (pronounced like “mannering”). A bestselling author, columnist, podcaster and international speaker, the 56-year old Australian business consultant has made it his life’s work to help companies figure out their bigger roles and propel them forward in the service of humanity. But “in terms of magnitude,” he’s a father first, driven to build a better future for his adult daughters and his wife of 30 years.
His work starts with storytelling. “I have a deep belief in the power of language to help us think and behave in new ways,” he says. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s spent the last two decades living in Los Angeles, home of the film industry, where imagining the future is built into the city’s DNA. Through We First, his strategic consulting company, he helps brands to see upcoming opportunities, foresee pitfalls and visualize the good they can accomplish in the world.
In conversation, he often refers to his books, “Lead with We” and “We First,” both world business bestsellers. He writes a column on business and social responsibility for Forbes and hosts the “Lead with We” podcast. In 2022, he made the “Thinkers360 Top 50 Global Thought Leaders and Influencers on Climate Change” list.
We’re starting to see some very deep and cascading problems that are only going to get worse. A self-serving mentality comes at the cost of things that are far more valuable than money.
A partial list of his passions and causes includes animal welfare, arts and culture, children, civil rights, humanitarian relief, economic empowerment, education, environment, health, human rights, politics and ending poverty.
Deseret asked Mainwaring why businesses should tackle big issues.
Deseret Magazine: What do you mean by “lead with us”?
Simon Mainwaring: We’re in a difficult situation because of the way all of us have been behaving for the last century at least. I wrote “We First” shortly after the global economic meltdown of 2007-08. The root problem was a me-first mentality. It felt unfair that a very small number of people did disproportionately well, while a growing number were suffering, losing their homes, hopes, health care, and so on. It was not just unconscionable, it was unsustainable. All of us need to see ourselves as co-creators in a new practice of business, which better serves all stakeholders and our future — grounded in a deep and pervasive belief in the power of capitalism, when we bring our best selves and highest purpose to it — because brands can’t survive in societies that fail. Whether we’re talking about climate, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, homelessness or anxiety and depression in younger generations, we’ve got a lot of challenges we’ve got to solve.
DMs: What are businesses getting wrong?
BC: If we’re honest with ourselves, most businesses — whether they choose to or have to — are just looking at their bottom line: how to make the most money as quickly as possible with the least expense to themselves. But that’s coming at the cost of our future now and it has nothing to do with politics. We’re starting to see the symptoms of some very deep and cascading problems that are only going to get worse. So this self-serving mentality comes at the cost of things that are far more valuable than money. That is one thing they’re getting wrong. Many companies do cause marketing in ways that are disingenuous, just managing optics, or they’re one-off ad hoc tactics, not something that’s foundational and sustained within their company. Even when they’re doing this work genuinely, they often talk about it in a self-directed way. “Look at what our company did.” It falls on deaf ears, because you’re just talking about yourself.
DMs: You talk a lot about changing our actions. why?
BC: No one is going to escape the future we’ve created for ourselves. The only way out is if we work together in new ways. The good news is, people want to work for, buy from or invest in companies that are doing good. Over the last few years, we’ve seen companies being asked for their opinion on COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, politics. These different issues are front and center for business now. Consumers want to see you playing a positive role in the world, because they’re worried about the future.
DMs: Does political strife impact business?
BC: It’s paralyzing for some leaders in the age of social media. When did we put our hands up? What do we say on a certain issue? Will our employees like it? Will our customers buy our product? Or will they protest against us? There’s nowhere to hide anymore. If you stay silent on an issue, you will be called out by investors, by employees, by consumers, because of your absence. If you are going to have a point of view, it needs to be authentic and grounded in your values as a company. Walk the talk. If people don’t agree, they can choose not to buy your product. They can argue with you. But you’re better off doing that than trying to play both sides or staying silent.
DMs: Are there issues that businesses share?
BC: The three issues that every company needs to speak out for: a fair living wage, which is the most important issue for Americans, according to research by Just Capital; diversity and inclusion; and, finally, some sort of sustainability profile in terms of your impact on the environment. Business is on the hook to do less harm and better. These issues are not sitting out there statically in the future, waiting for us to arrive. They’re growing and compounding and hurtling back towards us in the present. If you want to be on the right side of history, to be relevant and resonating, you’ve got to recognize that the world we live in has changed.
No one is going to escape the future we’ve created for ourselves. The only way out is if we work together in new ways.
DMs: How difficult is it to drag people into a new corporate culture?
BC: It’s very hard, but getting easier. I think COVID accelerated this process. Suddenly, in a way we could never have imagined, we saw businesses all around the world send their employees home, reengineer their supply chains to make face masks and ventilators, prepare meals for medical practitioners and first responders, and take care of their communities. We can’t unsee it.
DMs: How to say a business change to have that impact?
BC: First, define the purpose of your company in a simple, emotional and differentiated way. Second, share that with all of your employees in a way that makes them feel like they’re a part of it, and they’re going to play a role in making that purpose a reality. Third, accelerate and expand the positive impact you’re having that is meaningful to your brand. Build brand movements — get all stakeholders to work together with you to achieve that result.
DMs: Any last words?
BC: This is not the end of something. It may be tempting to feel pessimistic about the future, but this is a necessary painful rebirth, the most extraordinary ushering in a business renaissance we can ever imagine. We’re going to start working together with each other in new ways. We’re going to start working with nature, rather than against it. We will serve nature rather than steal from it. We will remember we are one human family, made up of communities who care about each other. And we actually have a deep and enduring respect and love for the natural world that we enjoy every day. I’m very optimistic about the future.
This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.