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Christine Mason McCaull

Partner, Milsal + McCaull

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Pepsi's TED talk: Progressive corporate transformation, or TEDwashing (like greenwashing for intellectuals)?

How do we encourage corporations to be involved in the debate, discussion, action and hopefully be a part of massively needed solutions, without creating an apologia or greenwashing for current business practices? The PepsiCo talk highlighted the good, the foundation, social interaction, and Indra is a very charismatic leader, yet the bulk of their business is peddling unsustainable relatively non-nutritive snack foods and beverages with huge amounts of waste packaging (all FritoLay, Gatorade, QuakerOats) worldwide, with huge amounts of lifestyle and neuromarketing science going into creating demand, and the science of sales optimization. On the other hand, I look at how WalMart (big TED involvement) and how their sustainability efforts have been able to move the needle in packaging, or fisheries, and am grateful for their participation. Or Shell, a prior sponsor.

Can a Pepsi reinvent at the product level?

Here is the debate:
What is the role of corporations at TED, or on the TED stage?

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    Mar 7 2011: This will forever be a conumdrum - how pure is pure, or what shade of gray should be the boundary? TED needs to maintain a light enough shade of gray to preserve an air of authenticity, honest-brokery etc.

    Pepsi has its own version of this with its Refresh program - for instance could it possibly support a Refresh initiative in school systems that replaces its products with locally grown foods and beverages [eg- milks and juices]?

    The TED solution seems to be evolving one trial Talk at a time - if its community feedback is one of its evaluation tools then we should all maintain a high level of mindful conversation in these fora. Programs funded by Refresh are wonderful - but I for one couldn't help being disturbed at Ms Nooyi's references to Pepsi products as "fun". That felt like washing to me.

    The Refresh progran equates to $0.04/ $100 in sales; $0.40/ $100 in revenue. This compares with domestic carbonated beverage and snack foods generating $39/$100 in sales, $54/$100 in revenue. That's a lot of unhealthy "fun" for every penny "refresh"ing. [sources: TEDTalk, wikinvest]
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    Mar 7 2011: I believe the role of the corporation in relation to TED is to provide financial and cultural support to TED as both a nonprofit organization and as a mission to spread worthy ideas. What corporations (or anyone else) must not do is misuse the TED platform to spread ideas that should be stopped from spreading. Promoting unhealthy products using the good deeds done by its unaffiliated consumers is IMO an idea worth stopping. Pepsi and many of its products are objectively unhealthy. The efforts of people (including Pepsi consumers and employees) to do good is inspiring, and Pepsi does deserve praise and gratitude for devoting some funds to help those projects. However, not one of those projects contributes changes the unhealthful effects of their products. For Pepsi to live up to its culture motto, the ‘performance’ of its products needs to be viewed in the context of its material products. As food & drink, Pepsi’s performance is by and large detrimental to the health of its consumers and irreconcilable with a purpose that considers the well-being of its consumers. I have no objection to people choosing Pepsi (or Coke) and enjoying their many tasty products as a (modest and small) part of a healthy diet. I do object to the incredible lack of transparency and honesty is the statement that Pepsi is fundamentally or innately good because of 1 ad and culture campaign. To me, ‘performance with purpose’ necessarily means aligning a food company’s products and actions with honest and measurable indicators of its consumer’s well-being. Giving $$$ to TED would be fine, but to be TED-stage-worthy, imo, Pepsi should be straight: Is it wise to consume Pepsi Products? How much lower or higher are Pepsi consumers’ rates of obesity and diabetes than they were 10 years ago? How do they compare with those rates in people who don’t use Pepsi products, or who use their competitors’ products? There is enormous room for big companies to do good, and I am eager and ready to applaud those.
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    Mar 17 2011: One thing that I am a bit worried about or uncomfortable with is companies like GE and others who pose questions in the conversations section. In a recent MBA course many of the articles I read encouraged companies not to pay for this sort of input from employees but rather to crowdsource it for better ideas at no cost. Maybe these companies are plugging that suggestion in and maybe there is nothing wrong with it but if they are I think that they should at least pay TED a fee so that random individuals who contribute great ideas can attend TED without cost.
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    Mar 7 2011: Also organsing a TEDxevent at moment and our speaker Christian Busch will speak on 'The Emergence of Impact Business' Relevant to this conversation, I have included a paragraph from his talk abstract. Will be livestreamed on march 18th. www.tedxgoodenoughcollege.com

    "Claiming that in order to reach transformation on a larger scale, we will need organizational forms that internally resolve the tension between impact (“selflessness”) and profit maximization (“self-interest”). That means that neither profit nor impact are stated as overarching maxim, but that they are both accounted for at the same level. The main difference to models we have today (e.g. social businesses, traditional businesses) will not necessarily be on the level of governance, but rather of institutionalized mind-sets; “joint value” will become the overarching dictum of the organization of the future.
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    Mar 7 2011: I would have much preferred to see Pepsi speaking about making Pepsi great. In this case, she mentioned Pepsi very briefly and then progressed to talk about great things one can do when there is alot of money to throw around. While I do like the fact that they are doing good acts, It did seem as if they were washing their brand with philanthropy. The Pepsi logo was at the front of everything they were doing that would have been more impressive if it had been more subtle.

    I think the role of TED is to introduce us to co-operations we should listen to, for example Zipcar by Robin Chase
    http://www.ted.com/talks/robin_chase_on_zipcar_and_her_next_big_idea.html The company and the idea are equally impressive.

    A corporate company who is doing good.
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    Mar 5 2011: @Ahmet Exactly, the primary reason that I continue to work for a big company is that I can use the resources of that company to influence a multitude of things to a higher degree than would be possible as an individual. I work for BASF http://www.basf.com/group/corporate/en/sustainability/society/social-business

    I believe that we are pointed strongly in the right direction and have the possiblilty to use the technologies we invent to make a difference in the way that the world moves forward.

    Also, one perosnal goal is to have a TEDxBASF in 2012.

    Companies have the mass to move the homan species quickly!
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      Mar 5 2011: Good luck with the TEDxBASF!

      Also I think every TED talk is a "promotion." In every TED talk we promote a person, a studio, a research lab etc. Why not big companies?
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        Mar 7 2011: Exactly! Every time someone gets up on the stage, they are promoting something. They're trying to spread something they think is a great idea.

        I eat a pretty healthy diet, rarely use Pepsi's products, and their existence as a corporation doesn't bother me at all. I do very occasionally drink that black fizzy stuff, and appreciate having it available. So for me personally, Pepsi is 'a good thing'.

        Even if it's seen as a bad thing overall, that doesn't mean nobody is entitled to stand up and talk about the other side of the coin. Everyone hates marketers, but Rory Sutherland and Seth Godin speak at TED. Everyone used to hate Bill Gates, but look at him now. Madeline Albright has been reviled by many, so has Al Gore, and Craig Venter has upset a lot of people. We can't just ban people from speaking because of our own points of view.

        We have to listen, and look beyond what we already know about these people or their organisations. There is always more to know, just as we also have to be more critical in the way we listen to talks. I'm glad to see people questioning speaker choices and messages, it means we're paying attention to what's going on. If the speakers know that, then it forces them to get with the program. Standing on that stage may push speakers to think more deeply about how they do business.
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    Mar 5 2011: As Jason Clay said in his TED talk, if you do not transform the corporations you cannot solve world's problems. We would come together, share ideas, come together again, ... Our impact will be small. Corporations should be part of TED. They should learn as Chris said something from us.