Gemma Tognini: Time for large corporations to stop social overreach

Gemma Tognini, The West Australian,
Green Banks Illustration: Don Lindsay
Green Banks Illustration: Don LindsayPicture: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

This week I received an unsolicited message from my bank.

It was one of those push marketing things that comes up when you log into the app on your phone.

Anyway, my bank proudly told me it has Australia’s first corporate loan linked directly to carbon emission targets.

The message didn’t talk to the nature of the loan, or what might make it more attractive to a business owner (things like rates, repayment terms, fees). No, this loan is apparently a great product because it’s Green.

Welcome to customer relations in 2019, where form over substance is where it’s at.

In Italian, there’s a saying for this — fa una bella figura — and trust me, it’s not a compliment. I’m not naming my bank because what I want to talk about is not a micro issue. It goes far beyond one message from one corporate to its customers.

It’s about how large corporations in almost every sector, as well as sporting bodies and clubs somewhere along the line decided they don’t just exist to provide products or services, or the infrastructure for communities to play sport and connect.

They decided that they exist to provide moral and social guidance to us poor confused numbnuts who can’t think for ourselves.

It’s the kind of tin-eared arrogance usually reserved for the political realm and astonishing after the electorate showed just a few months ago, that it was quite able to think for itself.

What’s the connection? Simple. Voters are customers, too, but we cast our ballots multiple times each day, when interacting with the companies we buy stuff from.

It’s a curious set of circumstances, especially given that post-election, everyone seems to be talking about listening.

First there was the Federal Opposition’s easy-listening tour, offering shades of Enya and Celine Dion.

The concept seemed an odd proposition, I mean, if after six years on the tough side of Parliament and a Federal election campaign, if you haven’t listened, will you ever?

In a recent interview, the Prime Minister talked about his own turning point being a summer holiday among the quiet Australians, where he sat and listened, setting his course from there.

Which takes me into the everyday of our corporate and retail worlds. The power we buy, the grocery stores we shop at, the airlines we fly with, the banks we trust with our money.

Who are they listening to and when did they decide it was their jobs to tell us what and how to think?

In this day and age, companies are so careful, for example, about assuming someone’s gender yet so quick to assume they know what most of us are thinking.

Irony thrives in the age of woke. When the AFL decided behaviour police at the footy was a good idea, who was it listening to?

When Qantas instructed cabin crew to stop using words like wife or husband (among other things) who was behind that bright idea?

When the NRL declared it spoke for all fans of the code in mandating support for indigenous recognition in the Constitution, who had it been listening to? All fans of the code? I’m not sure I buy that.

When my bank decided to spruik a corporate loan product solely based on green creds, who were they listening to?

Nobody who’s ever owned a business, just a hunch.

The shame of it is, so many companies and organisations are doing work in their communities that is meaningful, important and delivering real outcomes.

We hear so little of this, but so much of the stuff of overreach. Yep. Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word. Oh John, strange days indeed.

I’d wager those who choose an airline do so because of a safety over social agenda. I’m still with my bank because the people I have relationships with there are very good, and my experience has been positive. I’m no Robinson Crusoe on this either.

How do I know?

Again, the election.

It didn’t just decide our government, it offered a unique window into the zeitgeist of our time, one that is pushing back against this creeping, didactic approach to thought and belief.

Here’s what I mean. You can’t tell me that every one of Scott Morrison’s Quiet Australians is a Pentecostal Christian. That’s nonsense.

But they are voters (read, customers) who for a variety of motivations wouldn’t cop an alternative government who was telling them what to think and how.

In an election, it’s easy. People vote with their feet. The pain is instant.

When it comes to the products and services we buy, sports we enjoy watching and playing, it’s a slower burn because change is inconvenient.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from more than 25 years of doing what I do, it’s this: it may take time but eventually there’s a reckoning. There always is when you don’t listen.

Federal Labor learnt that.

Listening is a skill whether it’s one-to-one, or one to many.

It’s about asking the right questions, not just asking any question. We don’t like being told how to live. What to think.

We certainly don’t like being told that by people who are working on our dime, to provide a service we pay for — be they politicians or banks or insurance companies or sporting codes or anyone else.

What we’re seeing in this area of corporate social overreach is kind of like the consumer version of let them eat cake.

And we all know how that one ended, don’t we?