Empathic Change: Building Better Brands in the World of Humans  
By: Femke van Loon
4 min read

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” 


If like many of our clients you’re battling to make a change in a big organization – accelerating a movement towards sustainability and regenerative business – then this famous line by Margaret Mead will feel good – but short. It points to the first challenge we face when building a change program in an organization: find that small group of change makers, whose energy will drive transformation. But it hardly gives pointers for what comes next.

Organizational change sometimes feels like a corporate go game – building strategies to flip the color of the pitch. Yet the rules are different. Unlike the game’s black and white stones, people don’t just flip when they are surrounded. For that human go, it’s helpful to remember how we all deal with change. 

As humans we are indeed wired to avoid change. It’s called the “status quo bias” in psychology. If you read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, then you’ll know we dramatically over-value what we have in hand vs what we could have, so that the new option typically needs to be twice as good to make us budge. 

Beating that bias requires the combination of three equally powerful human drivers.

1.Purpose (and a desirable path). There’s a reason why “purpose” has been at the center of business conversations over the last 10 years: we humans need an aspiration. Offering a group of people a meaningful ambition is a key to create a desire for transformation. A change team is there to express that purpose. Spark an intention. Express what we call a “mobilizing change idea”: not just describing the destination, but the change path, and making it desirable. 

When Paul Polman initially expressed the ambition of building a Unilever that would be “double the size and half the carbon footprint” of the one he was taking the helm of, he set an aspiration. But when he coined the phrase “making sustainability commonplace”, he offered a bold mobilizing change idea. That it sounds obvious today is a testament to his success.

But purpose is not enough. 


2. Contribution (from everyone). Change needs to be touched, turned into practical experience. And it needs to be owned, because – it’s another human trait – we push for the changes we decide, whilst we reject those forced upon us. The role of a change team is to organize for others to contribute to the development of the initiatives that will take the organization towards its purpose. The people in the organization, but also beyond. Change at scale happens in small touches: it’s about getting everyone to contribute a little.

When we helped Blédina (a baby food business unit of Danone) coin the ambition to “cultivate a more wholesome way to eat”, we spent time working with the commercial, quality, R&D, sourcing and even HR teams. Tapping into ideation conversations held with farmers, doctors, chefs – everyone in their ecosystem. They  made their purpose concrete, defining dozens of ideas that they turned into coordinated transformation programs. 

But that, too, is not enough. 


3. Impact (measure & feedback). Did you notice your tennis game or your running performance improves when you keep track of results? There is no progress without a feedback loop – that is also human. So if your mobilizing idea translates into a laundry list of disparate KPIs – from the percentage of eco-conceived innovation to carbon neutrality commitment – then everybody loses sight of the intention, like a game with too complicated rules.

The BIA, the assessment tool used to certify B-Corps, offers a way to do better. It turns dozens of impact measures (from carbon to communities, from transparency to value chain…) into “points”. The average company scores 51. The maximum score is 200. At 80, you can see yourself as a regenerative business. With our partner Nativa, we turn the company’s purpose into a desired impact profile, and score every initiative using the “point” as a common currency to track progress. Even if the company does not ambition to become a certified B Corp, it allows its people to know where they progress on the path, quarter by quarter if needed.

As you edge your brand or your business towards a regenerative paradigm, you probably know your biggest challenge is the inertia of the system you operate in. Changing it starts with the recognition that it’s made of human beings: putting humans in charge, with ways of working that leverage an understanding of what makes us change. 

When it comes to building better brands, human empathy is a super power!