IMD participants examine the politicization of corporate strategy, and the means by which corporations seek to “frame” themselves.

“The private life is dead in Russia.  History has killed it.” So declares a Soviet officer in the film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.  Ideology demands conformity, and so a poem is no longer simply a poem – it must either be reactionary or progressive.  And in hyper-connected, media-saturated 2020, this lesson of the 1917 Revolution has now been taught to corporations and entrepreneurs. 

In the American context, it was once believed that, as per President Coolidge, “the chief business of the American people is business” – yet now, globally, both businesses and people are often expected to have opinions on non-business-related ideological and social issues ranging from sexual identity to international relations.  To better understand this shift, IMD participants have explored the themes of society-wide stakeholder management in a series of lectures on Nonmarket Strategy by Professor David Bach.

Governments have always influenced economies, but now this influence is contested and visible in the public sphere.  Our class studied examples of Australian mining companies who sought to shape or influence tax legislation, waging media campaigns worthy of politicians or activists.  Similarly, we studied the ways in which social media could enhance and protect brands, or collapse market share, as seen through the lens of companies responding to contentious political protests and debates.  Generally, we found that memetics can matter as much, or more, than materialistic factors. 

The PR departments of the past are inadequate; a modern integrated strategy must actively position a company not only within markets, but also within societies.  IMD participants thus went beyond the classical “five forces” or value chain analyses to what Professor Bach has termed IA3 – a deep qualitative dive into a given scenario’s issues, actors, interests, arenas, information, and assets.  Over the next week, we will apply this framework to efforts by technology firms to develop universal APIs for coronavirus contact tracing.  We will consider the different ways in which such efforts must be “framed” – and persuasively sold – to different stakeholders.

One of the earliest historical examples of framing and narrative: Zhao Gao identifies true loyalists through the absurd claim that a deer is a horse, since his enemies refuse to accept his framing.  Thus, the proverb: “Point Deer, Make Horse” (指鹿為馬).

Carl Schmitt observed that the fundamental question of politics is the distinction between friend and enemy.  As our world becomes more polarized and politicized, it is thus of paramount importance to corporations that societies view them in friendly terms.  In class, we discussed the related phenomenon of “CEO activism,” wherein performative corporate ideology is both a driver of growth and an insurance policy.  But are such nonmarket strategies sustainable across diverse markets and societies?  In China, the Dangweishuji political officers tasked with ensuring organizational and social harmony need only balance stakeholders against the Party.  It is unclear, however, whether corporations can truly serve multiple ideological masters, and whether friendly harmony is possible in global markets and contexts.

The power of the frame: whether you see elephants or swans may depend on where you look.


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