When the Golden Rule goes wrong

WRITTEN BY MARK O'RENICK

In mid-August, Marriott International rolled out its first category marketing campaign designed to promote the collective strength its family of brands. The campaign, “We live by the #GoldenRule”, was a lofty claim, delivered with slick production values and videos telling stories of associates acting out of kindness. The message was strong and clear, “Treating others like we’d like to be treated. It has always been our guiding principle.”

It’s great when organizations value purpose and want to act on this instinct to do good in the world. The definition of organizational purpose that drives our Brand Believability research is “having a profound positive impact on lives, communities and the world.” Organizations that use their resources to make a positive impact earn our respect - and they should. But far too often, organizations make promises and lofty marketing claims before they make sure they have the proper organizational mindset to align what they do with what they say.

Putting purpose to the test

Fast forward a month after the “We live by the #GoldenRule” campaign launched. Hurricane Irma raged through the Caribbean wreaking havoc and destruction in its wake. The U.S. Virgin Islands were hit hard, including St. Thomas, where Marriott guests and other tourists were stranded. The airport was closed and another hurricane was threatening. Food and water supplies were dwindling, so Marriott chartered a rescue ship.  

People were directed to a dock where the ship would soon pick them up. Luckily for tourists on the dock, the ship had ample room to carry them all to safety. But it didn’t. Only Marriott guests were allowed to board leaving nearly three dozen tourists stranded, watching their hope for rescue sail onto the horizon.  

Marriott had business reasons why guests were the only ones allowed on board.  Companies have hierarchies and protectionist rules after all. But people were angry. They wondered why Marriott would leave them stranded when they had plenty of room on the boat. They wondered how they could be treated differently, just because they were not a guest. They asked themselves what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot - would they follow a corporate rule or the golden rule?

Once exposed, Marriott released a statement to try and justify its actions. “As a company, Marriott places a priority on the safety and security of our guests, but we have a long tradition of looking out for the greater community. In this case we weren't able to help and as grateful as we are that we were able to transport our guests, we are saddened that we were not able to do the same for more people.” Three dozen people in his case that would have still left room on the ship.

A true commitment to purpose doesn't leave room for excuses or feigned expressions of regret. Aligning an organization as large as Marriott to live up to lofty promises of serving the needs of others is not easy. At the end of the day, no one expects perfection - but honestly admitting failure is the only way to grow beyond organizational behaviors that limit the ability to act on an intended purpose to do good - to treat others like we’d like to be treated.

There are many other examples of organizations in the recent hurricanes that responded out of good.

 

Mark O’Renick is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in branding, business strategy, organizational development, finance and entrepreneurial innovation.  He can be reached at morenick@willgrail.com.