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commerce, conscience, culture, and control – the four dimensions of societal relevance

a while back, I came across a tweet by Business Insider about the three key dimensions of society: commerce (as in businesses), conscience (mostly represented by non-profits and charitable organizations), and culture (through arts). I thought one was missing though, so I added control to the model (covering the necessary and unavoidable rules and conventions defined by society and regulators). and while Business Insider defined them slightly differently, I loved the simplicity of this idea. how something as complex as society could be summarized in these four elementary perspectives. as if a ten-thousand-piece puzzle had just been pre-sorted into smaller puzzles. or as if looking at society through one of the lenses at a time helped filter out some of the noise and complexity. so it got me thinking. and I looked into transposing this model to people, stories, and brands. after all, if it could make society seem simpler, maybe it could also bring some more sense into those other multi-layered realms.

I quickly realized that, somehow, a responsible person, story or brand would aim at addressing or impacting all four. not only because it is the responsible thing to do – in case that wasn’t enough of a reason. but also because it matters to their stakeholders. after all, we all live in the same society – as people and organizations. we all share its resources. we all contribute to its dynamism. and believe me, those stakeholders of yours… are watching you.

let’s have a look at these four dimensions and see how they can be leveraged to drive societal impact.

with this one, we don’t only want to look at whether or not you are following the law (you better do though), but also at how you are using your stories, influence or expertise as an organization or person to impact policies and regulations for the benefit of all. for example, how can a tech company support the writing and passing of privacy protection laws, or how can a food producer help set quality nutrition requirements for mass-produced goods? officially, they don’t have to help. but eventually, it’s about holding everyone accountable to doing the right thing.

this dimension is not only about selling stuff or driving profit. it is even more about being an active part of the economical ecosystem for our society as a whole. for example, are you providing fair salaries to your employees and are you paying the taxes you owe – versus underpaying your workforce and suppliers, or building complex structures to evade taxes? the more money you make, the more people will expect for you to properly earn it, use it responsibly, and contribute back. nowadays, greed is not sexy.

talking about giving back, it’s not only about your money. it’s also about your ongoing support which can definitely be monetary, but can also take different forms like sharing your expertise, training students and young professionals, amplifying the voice of others, integrating them into your stories, having a full-fletched corporate social responsibility program, valuing diversity and inclusion, keeping accessibility in mind in everything you do, or allowing your employees to volunteer for charity during working hours, and so much more. in some cases, even building your own foundation supporting as many projects as you can around a matter that you feel strongly about. this is the piece that makes you strive for good over evil – acting the way a good person would.

in its broadest sense, “culture” can be defined in many different ways. I love Geert Hofstede‘s view on it where he defines it as a set of specific symbols, values, heroes, rituals, and practices. and when it comes to “culture” in the context of societal responsibility, we need to look at it from two different sides: your internal culture, and the way you support and fit into the culture of the society your stakeholders are part of.
obviously, your internal culture needs to align with the external culture, as well as all the other dimensions we covered in this article (control, commerce and conscience). and the more you align your internal culture to the world you want to live in, the more you will be able to shine authentically from the inside out – requiring less heavy lifting from your marketing team.
still, you need to be externally relevant. you need to fit into a much bigger and continuously-evolving world. keeping in mind that the culture of one group of people is different from the next. and that even people within the same market can have different (sub)cultures – like hipsters versus goths in London. still, it should never be about imposing your culture to the rest of the world though. learning from the differences and flexing accordingly is what will make you or brake you. so to make sure you stay culturally relevant, you first need to understand the culture you are about to step into, how it differs from yours, and how you should adapt your stories and perspectives accordingly – not changing who you are as such, but looking more closely at things like how to dress, how to greet someone, which language to speak, what expressions to use, etc. people should always feel like it’s easy for them to relate to you. whoever they are, wherever they’re from.
and as suggested by Business Insider, you can use art as a proxy. there is so much you can tell about a culture by analyzing the art and other types of self-expression that it values – especially as you look at how it evolves over time. remember how the first paintings of naked women showing up in Europe were so shocking and provocative? how some books were banned from libraries and burned? how still today some TV shows and music is censured for broad audiences? what is “culturally relevant” today might just be boring tomorrow. and what is culturally trendy in one place can be shocking or weird in another. can you cope with it? can you flex with it?

where they intersect
the biggest part of the fun resides in the fact that it’s not enough to cover each dimension separately. they actually have to all align. what is defined as good or bad is also dependent on the culture you are in, which also impacts what a good person would do (conscience). some markets have different needs or priorities then others, making some businesses more profitable than others (commerce). every country has its own set of rules and laws (control), and many of the social conventions are dictated by cultural practices. plus, what is a charitable cause in one place can be completely irrelevant in another. so what is true for some, is often different for others. and it is only when control, commerce, conscience, and culture come together that you can truly have a positive impact on the society you are part of. and keep in mind that you will most probably be held accountable for it – if not by regulators, by your very own customers (or even employees).

there you go… one more practical model that you can use to assess what you’re doing. and it’s pretty simple: control, commerce, conscience, and culture. are you doing what’s right? are you participating in the overall economy? are you acting like a good person? and are you culturally relevant?

“with great power, comes great responsibility”.
what will you do with your power?

by the way, if your brain is wired like mine and you’ve read some of our previous work, these four dimensions might have reminded you of the post where I talked about the four necessary evils of business:

  • legal and privacy;
  • finance;
  • geopol and inclusiveness; and
  • brand.

coincidence? I don’t think so.

  1. legal and privacy seem very well aligned with the dimension of “control”.
  2. while finance seems a pretty good match for “commerce” (put your money where you mouth is, right?).
  3. geopol and inclusiveness are pretty well integrated into the idea of “culture” as in how we make sure to take other perspectives (cultural but not only) into account, while being inclusive and respectful of others – whoever they are, wherever they are.
  4. brand would act as our “conscience”. this is a very seducing idea. in another article, we used a person’s personality as a metaphor for a brand. while this still holds, the idea of the brand acting as a conscience – always in the back of your mind telling you that whatever you are about to do is right or not – is very interesting. at the make sense academy, we do believe that everything you do should always align with your brand, just like it should align with your conscience. so we definitely like this idea.

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