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Nielsen and Corporate Responsibility: It Takes One

Crystal Barnes
Crystal Barnes, SVP, Global Responsibility & Sustainability, Executive Director, The Nielsen Foundation

The idea that ‘it takes one’ is a basic concept, but the outcome of instilling that idea into our culture has shaped Nielsen’s ability to connect with more diverse stakeholders over the years to inspire action at all levels of our organization, directly contributing to our forward-looking goals and impact on society.

As we all know, there’s more to our own personal and professional journeys than what meets the eye. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about our companies and our lives just in terms of the outcomes we pursue. To only think about the milestones we hit, or the endpoints we reach, or that what we do in between is meant to be barreled through on the way to somewhere else, something greater.

There is value in the journey. Pay attention and learn from it—and it can propel you forward in rewarding ways. It truly does take one—one dream, one leader, one action—to create a journey and an outcome that matters.

Very few things will happen without challenge and risks. One of my favorite mottos that’s proven to be relevant for me both personally and professionally is focused on the importance of being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The idea that ‘it takes one’ has seen many incarnations over the years at Nielsen:

One Innovative Idea

A 26-year-old in 1923 with an idea backed by cash from friends and family started a business with an idea to track consumer behavior, a concept that was revolutionary for its time.

This was how Nielsen began. It was the Kickstarter of the turn of the century. We started with performance surveys for clients like GE and DuPont, added market surveys, launched our retail measurement business, expanded into the world of radio with a new piece of technology called the audimeter, expanded globally, launched television audience measurement (which most people know us for today) and have continued to this day to follow the consumer across what they watch and what they buy.

Now to be clear, all of this did not happen without peaks and valleys. In 1930 we saw our revenue peak at $205,000 and decline three years later by 75% to $52,000. We saw our massive workforce of 45 employees fall drastically to six. And we worked for years to refine and polish technology to support the growing market and meet client demands. And in all of this movement and evolution the constant however, being the audacity of hope, courage to change, and motivation to act. One 26-year old’s dream has today grown into a $6 billion company, with 43,000 members in more than 100 countries.

One Courageous Suggestion

More than 90 years later, an eager and bright young associate at Nielsen made a suggestion to build out a robust corporate responsibility program to reflect more broadly the spirit of stewardship that was ingrained in the company.

That spirit of stewardship taught him that he could speak up and share an idea, and people would listen. His title or seniority didn’t matter. Our strong sense of trust and values—which are expressed as Connected, Open, Useful, and Personal–paved the way for that idea to see the light of day. This associate put a business plan together, pitched it to our Vice Chair and CEO and was promoted to lead our Corporate Responsibility (CR) journey.

As a company, we started with a global annual day of service for associates from around the world to come together at the same time in our communities to make an impact and built on that by adding a full week annually for global environmental projects.

The outcome today: 23,000+ associates, in 89 countries working across 1,500 community projects—building schools, digging wells, teaching children, feeding communities, and the list goes on. We just completed our sixth Nielsen Global Impact Day on May 11 this year. Also, our fourth annual Earth Week celebrations were held in April, with 17,000+ associates coming together over five days across the globe, to lead and participate in environmentally sustainable activities that promote responsible interactions with our natural environment and efficient resource usage.

Today, we’ve focused our corporate responsibility and sustainability strategy through our Global Responsibility & Sustainability platform. Within that, Nielsen Cares is our volunteer employee engagement program through which we leverage our data assets and expertise to uniquely affect change in our communities, Nielsen Green is our environmental sustainability program where we continue to identify innovative practices to minimize our impact on our natural resources; and our responsible practices and external reporting practice speaks to our commitment to continuous improvement with our investor, client and regulatory audiences and reporting entities.

In each of these areas, these multi-stakeholder demands have challenged us to think about CR through the holistic lens of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors.

One Impactful Connection

What core strength could Nielsen contribute to make a societal impact in an area of great need? Data scientists + joining World Food Programme’s global fight against hunger = on-the-ground impact.

Amanda Welsh, former leader of our data science strategy, was consistently looking for new opportunities for her team to sharpen their skills and grow in unconventional ways. Three years ago, she turned to our CR team to help engage her top talent in meaningful projects that would grow them as leaders but also had a required social good element.

Our Data for Good initiative allows us to use Nielsen’s core competencies—data and analytics—to drive positive outcomes beyond Nielsen in our communities. There are more than 795 million people around the world who do not have enough food to eat, according the World Food Programme (WFP), the leading humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide.

WFP has the dual mission of securing the food people need and determining the best way to distribute it—which can be a major challenge in areas with limited transportation infrastructure, and in war-torn regions and places that have been affected by natural disasters.

Interestingly, much like Nielsen’s Data Acquisition Team, WFP sometimes sends men and women into the field to go door-to-door (or tent-to-tent in some cases) to gather information. As you can imagine, this method is not only extremely expensive, but can also be very dangerous, especially when there is a risk of conflict or disease.

For these reasons, in 2013 the World Food Programme set out to find a better way to collect information. They had a critical technology need that Nielsen could actually help solve.

Amanda and her team worked with WFP for a year as they modernized their data collection methods to include mobile technology. We helped them figure out how to collect the critical data remotely, the methodology, how to analyze it, and how to leverage in country expertise. All of this work unintentionally occurred in the midst of the Ebola Crisis.

The results: WFP is now able to operate more efficiently and effectively deploying surveys with an 83% time savings and 50% cost savings.

One Vital Action

All it takes is one person in a store choosing a responsible product or one person on social media talking about a product they trust.

Research tells us that consumers care and they are willing to pay extra for products and services that come from companies they feel are committed to positive social and environmental impact.

They are seeking transparency and simplicity in the packaging of their products and the ingredients.

Consumers are paying attention to product details and want to publicly advocate for brands that get it right. Today, we are all one tweet, snap, or post away from sweet victory or a PR nightmare.

Consumer sentiment and demand drives company action (and vice versa), and increasingly, these actions are driving innovations such as organic products, corporate transparency of responsible business practices, investing in sustainable farming, among many other examples.

Our research tells us that the top 20 manufacturers did not grow in 2016. As of August 2017, we’re seeing just 0.1% of year-over-year total store dollar growth and a decline of 1.1% in total store volume growth in retail. Now, that might not seem like a lot; however, it is when you consider that population grows 0.7% or more each year. Declines in volume and dollars, deflation, e-commerce and income disparity are all factors contributing to a big challenge for retailers and consumer goods companies looking for growth. So, in an economy that’s stagnant for some, these vocal supporters and consumers pushing your company towards a greater commitment to sustainability is a win-win for all.

Multipliers for Good

For today’s CR leaders it’s important to understand the various roles our diverse audiences play in inspiring action and increasing the impact of our efforts. One action can be a multiplier. We can inspire the next idea, suggestion, connection or action. In many ways we are all multipliers for good in our organizations. There is nothing rote or automated about stakeholder engagement. The need to personalize and customize—and to think about the many one actions that add up—is a necessity to be competitive and to make an impact. By listening to consumers, investors, employees, clients, the community and other stakeholders we can unlock new opportunities and create strong relationships that pay future dividends, in inevitable times of prosperity and crisis.

This article originally appeared in Thomson Reuters’ Executive Perspectives.