Sandy Skees
Soquel-based consultant Sandy Skees balances working on a national and international level in the business world and maintaining community activism on the local level.
The Here & Now

A brave new world: Sandy Skees shares how businesses can succeed with a new generation of consumers

Business consultant Sandy Skees has written a new book titled “Purposeful Brands,” in which she argues that brands that put sustainability and diversity on the top of their priorities will be better off in the bottom line as well. She sees a new generation of consumers and workers poised to permanently change how the landscape looks for companies and brand managers.

In another world, in another time, businesses and consumers had a simple, unspoken agreement — If you produce good pizza (to name a random example) at a reasonable price that is convenient to me, then you’ve earned my pizza dollar. Congratulations. Let’s eat.

These days, that basic commercial exchange is not nearly so simple. To extend our example a bit further, today you still have to make great pizza to earn that dollar. But you’re probably also going to have to provide answers to your potential consumers on a host of other questions. Where are you getting your workers? Are you providing a fair wage? Are you sensitive to the racial and gender diversity of your staff? How do you source your mozzarella? What do you do with your used pizza boxes? What is your policy on food waste? Do you have a relationship with the neighborhood food bank? Have you considered outfitting your delivery drivers with electric vehicles? The list could go on.

Soquel-based branding consultant Sandy Skees has taken on the role of helping businesses and brand managers negotiate this complex new world. And she’s sharing some of her insights in a new book titled “Purposeful Brands: How Purpose and Sustainability Drive Brand Value and Positive Change.” She will talk about the booklive and in person on Thursday, July 27 at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Skees is an executive vice president at Porter Novelli, a prominent public relations firm that is part of the global company Omnicom. In that role, she works with brands and companies on a national and international level. But she’s also a prominent figure in Santa Cruz County, as a board member for the Community Foundation, an advisor at the Diversity Center, a co-creator of the local chapter of the 100 Women Who Care philanthropic group, and an activist and consultant to help women running for public office.

Lookout had a chance to visit with Sandy Skees to talk about her new book and how companies are adapting to demands from an emerging generation of consumers and workers.

Baine: So, what’s the basic premise of your new book “Purposeful Brands”?

Skees: We start with the premise that business has an important role to play in creating a world that works for everyone. Since, I would say, 2018 or 2019, there’s been a growing shift in companies’ strategy. There’s a growing understanding that paying attention to a company’s environmental and social footprint, its inputs and impacts, is now just part of a business’s sense of responsibility. The old Milton Friedman adage “The only purpose of a company is to deliver shareholder profit” is losing its saliency as we growingly understand that companies have a big role to play in creating a habitable earth and a functioning society. My book is specifically about companies who recognize that they have a role to play in protecting the commons — clean air, clean water, soil, a functioning society, all those things — and applying the business toward solving for or protecting some slice of the commons.

Baine: There’s always been a certain percentage of consumers who are aware of and concerned about these issues. Is it now just a question of that percentage hitting a critical mass? Or is this new phenomenon different in kind?

Skees: Well, you’re right about that. There has always been a percentage of people that expect businesses to be responsible. The challenge now is that with younger and younger generations, it’s now just a basic expectation that the products I buy won’t be harmful to me or the planet, and the companies who make them are going to be responsible and take care of not just their employees, but the farmers and the suppliers and everyone else involved.

Baine: So, there’s a big generational part of this?

Skees: Exactly, and those people aren’t only going to be the customers who will be buying your product, they’re going to be your employees. There’s a tremendous amount of data that says young people simply won’t work for a company that doesn’t specifically state what its purpose is, and how it’s contributing to protecting and preserving and restoring the commons. So that’s a sea change in expectations for businesses.

[Also], there’s now two decades of data that says companies who carefully manage their resources, pay attention to their supply chain, understand and optimize for the waste they produce in the world, they’re better run and they’re more profitable. There’s always been this myth that tree huggers and those involved in [diversity and inclusion], all that’s just soft stuff. And you end up not delivering. If you’re gonna save the whales, you’re not delivering me my profit. The truth is that companies that startadding environmental input and outputs to their business calculations, they’re better run, they’re more stable, they outperform the market.

Baine: I have to ask about the pushback to all this. I read recently that someone has developed an app for conservative consumers who can walk into a supermarket and get a “wokeness” score on any product in the store. And there are very sophisticated campaigns to label some of these companies with this “wokeness” charge. It’s almost as if brands have to appeal to a certain consumer base: Do you want to sell to that segment, or this segment? And that the mainstream consumer base is disappearing. Is it that extreme?

Skees: I get this question a lot by clients and companies that I work with. I think there’s two things you’re absolutely right about: that there is a group of very sophisticated activists who will take whatever initiative a brand is putting forward — this was done a lot during Pride, certainly, in June — and they’re going to weaponize their response to it so they can take whatever the commitment you’ve made and use it to create their own flashpoint of outrage. So you’re going to be used as sort of a tool for outrage creation. And so my counsel to companies is just simply to expect that. Our research shows — and it’s not just ours, at Porter Novelli where I work but from others; there’s plenty of research out there — that says the trajectory of response, whether it’s a decline in sales, or even a decline in share price, it’s not lasting.

Sandy Skees on the new generation of consumers: “There’s a tremendous amount of data that says young people simply won’t work for a company that doesn’t specifically state what its purpose is, and how it’s contributing to protecting and preserving and restoring the commons. That’s a sea change in expectations for businesses.”

Baine: This historically goes against the grain of what brands are all about, right? “We don’t want to offend anybody. We want to make sure everyone is happy with our product.” So having to make those choices is tough.

Skees: That’s right, but when you just look at the culture shift — that is, the generational shift — that’s coming. This is going to be the most diverse generational cohort we’ve ever seen. Just in terms of a mix of races, ethnicities, identities, genders, orientation, all of it. That’s who this generation is. So what we’ve found through the most recent anti-woke backlash is that the companies who are steady in their commitments fare the best. So for a company that says “Diversity, equity and inclusion are important to us. We need it because we have an extraordinarily diverse workforce that is only going to become more diverse. And we know that diversity of life experience, identity, thought, etc. makes for a better business. So for us, as a business imperative, we’re going to stay the course,” those companies have [a better shot to succeed]. And that’s what [the future] is going to look like: “We may talk less about it. We’re not going to hide or be non-transparent. We may be quieter in how we talk about it. But the important thing is to continue the work.”

Sandy Skees will appear live at Bookshop Santa Cruz on July 27, at 7 p.m.The event is free.