A saluting boy scout in uniform circa 1950
Do the right thing: consumers expect higher standards of behaviour from companies

To British readers there are few things more cringe-inducing in business than having a cheerleader psyching them up to do good. Yet this is just what Steven Overman does in The Conscience Economy: How a Mass Movement for Good is Great for Business. Being bad in business, he asserts, used to be not just profitable but even a bit admirable. “Bad behaviour – and particularly getting away with bad behaviour – has long been a fertile source of value share,” he writes.

Consumers expect a lot more today. They are different to previous generations, he writes. They are optimistic. They are, the author says, “rejecting everyday choices in ways that defy traditional logic … They’re questioning everything from the notion of career consistency to the value of money itself. They’re hacking everything from government policy to the genome.”

The signs are everywhere. “The global wave of young entrepreneurship is an indicator not only of an increase in personal self-belief and empowerment, but a sign of the growing optimism that there could and will be a better way to work, produce and live.” Locally sourced food is important to shoppers. We want our investments to do good.

The internet is accelerating the spread of a global consciousness – the “conscience culture” that gives the book its title. We have got here, Overman says, not just because of the internet but due to a “major conflux” – a coming together of various forces that drive us towards a tipping point. These include environmental concerns, networked warfare (or terrorism), artificial intelligence and evaporation of privacy.

Many books aimed at business people dramatise the sweeping changes facing consumers and workplaces. You pay your money to the author to discover the answers – that is the deal.

The scale of change, then, may be ratcheted up to woo a book-buying audience. In fact, the author cites a survey by Fortune magazine in 1946 that found people wanted business to act with a social conscience. So too the millennials – the generation born between the early 1980s and early 2000s – who are often portrayed as wanting to do work of social value but whose commitment to such work has been questioned by some observers.

Overman is familiar with eye-rolling. The American had a culture shock adapting to British corporate ways when he came to the UK – he was made aware that his bombastic cheerleading style was over the top for a British audience. “My leadership style in the United States was seen at best as cheerleader-coach-optimist and at worst as highly focused and perfectionist,” he writes. “But in the UK, I was perceived to be fake, unrealistic and overbearing.” He was sent for “cultural reconditioning”. However, many of his points are good: companies can no longer be complacent, and people need to be alert to new ideas and threats from beyond their own sector.

He rightly calls the death of corporate social responsibility as a separate department. Rather than being an add-on, it is increasingly seen as intrinsic to all the functions of a business. Yet Overman goes further and suggests the expertise on social responsibility should rest with the marketing department.

Billed as a “strategy and innovation consultant”, Overman was until last year vice-president of global brand strategy and marketing creation at Nokia, the mobile phone company. One assumes it is Nokia he is referring to in the book as the company that became complacent with its own success until it was too late. He is right that social media have altered the old model of marketing and his idea of creating a new mission for his profession, though interesting, is a tad self-serving. In recasting his profession, he proves his theory that business must adapt to the new economy. Whether it is a conscience economy, I am still unsure.

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