Cover of the Harvard Business Review with a portrait of a man.
Cover of the Harvard Business Review with a portrait of a man.

What if your news company had a business model that contributed to society and the environment instead of taking from them?

That is the compelling question Unilever CEO Paul Polman discussed with Harvard Business Review (HBR) in its June edition. Polman was talking about Unilever, yet the interview struck me as something useful to news industry CEOs, boards of directors, and management teams in developing mission statements and strategies and dealing with shareholders.

Polman has been anything but the traditional CEO since taking over in 2009. He abolished quarterly financial reporting and told hedge funds they weren’t welcome as investors. He aims to double Unilever’s revenue by 2020 while simultaneously halving its environmental impact.

In short, he wants Unilever to have a social mission while protecting its core.

Unilever has established for all its brands a social mission, an economic mission, and a product mission.

Says Polman in the HBR interview: “We think that businesses that are responsible and actually make contributing to society a part of their business model will be successful.”

He cites William Lever, who started Unilever in the 19th century. Great Britain had severe hygiene issues, so he invented bar soap not to make money but because one out of two babies didn’t live past their first year. Lever established the company’s values and built on them.

In discussing the proper role of shareholders in a modern corporation, Polman tells HBR “you need to attract a shareholder base that supports your strategy — not the other way around.”

With that as a foundation, a company can approach consumers with a multi-dimensionality that is missing in many brands and companies today. Says Polman: “(I)f you satisfy the basic conditions of price and quality and then provide more on top, you will be in a significantly better position.” He cites Lipton, where Unilever has moved to sustainable tea sourcing. While the tea needs to taste good and have a competitive price, its sustainable sourcing gives the brand a life “and consumers think it's even better.”

If Unilever seems out of its lane with this move toward social mission, Polman explains the context. There is a unique opportunity today for corporations, given the U.S. inclination toward internal focus, China and India’s unwillingness to step up, and presumably Europe’s economic paralysis. This provides corporations to be “a force for good.”

Outside of the journalism that we produce, the packaging that we provide, and the commercial marketplace we facilitate, what do news companies and the news brands that we produce contribute back to society? What is our third rail that establishes our companies’ values? Upon reading a newspaper or perusing a news Web site, what do our brands convey — above and beyond product and price — whereby consumers see that we’re “even better?” Or do our products drown out our brands?

I’ve never thought of newspapers as entities that take from society. Yet reading the Unilever CEO’s interview reminds me of how a growing segment of readers since the 1980s dropped the print newspaper habit out of guilt over the environment, the waste of paper when newspapers weren’t read, and the growing pile that had to be thrown away. This isn’t an issue to message through or work around. It’s an issue that could be sveltely confronted by news companies going multi-media.

Beyond environmental concerns, editors see their collective work of journalism as the life preserver of democracy — moving, except surveys suggest the consumer perception of the same function as more of a leech that sucks the blood from its victim. What dimension in your company’s brand values can help bridge that gap and reverse perceptions?

The headlines that dominate the news industry have drowned out the ability to identify and communicate these values. Forget the hundreds of causes that your company is involved with; think of an overriding, clear value proposition.

The example that comes to mind is The Times of India’s ongoing contributions back to the society it serves, ranging from “the glass is half full” exhortation to the rising and aspiring India, to the “Lead India” and “Teach India” campaigns that encouraged civic responsibility. To make these campaigns work, they placed big annual bets on a single campaign and drove it — as opposed to most newspapers that have their fingers in many pies.

What is your news company’s social mission beyond product, price, and P&L? What is that “something extra on top” that distinguishes your brand?