Using scorecards to influence business: the Behind the Brands experience

Erinch Sahan Influencing, Private sector

In the run up to Oxfam’s Evidence for Influencing conference on Oct 23 – 24, Erinch Sahan shares how Oxfam has used scorecards to influence business.

Companies compete, that’s just what they do. As a company’s performance is assessed against competitors’ decision-makers in companies are incentivised to ‘win’. The desire to ‘win’ shapes corporate culture and this is a dynamic that should be at the heart of efforts to influence business. To successfully influence companies to improve their practice to combat poverty, social injustice or environmental problems, tapping into this competitive spirit can be pivotal.

Triggering the race through scorecards and indexes

One way of leveraging companies’ competitive spirit is to use scorecards to try and trigger a race to the top. Scorecards have become sexy in recent years. Initiatives are increasingly assessing and ranking companies on a wide range of issues, including their sustainability policies, human rights policies and practices, impacts on access to medicines and how they protect use data. These scorecards and indexes all differ on a number of fronts, including how they conduct the research, how they engage the companies, how they update (and repeat) the scorecard and whether they are accompanied by other influencing strategies such as public engagement and campaigning (i.e.; what campaigners call the ‘spanking’ part of the ‘rank and spank’). But they all implicitly want to trigger that race to the top which taps into the competitive spirit within companies (and people).

Oxfam’s scorecard in Behind the Brands

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign used a scorecard as a central pillar of the campaign (see this report summarising the campaign), which saw important changes to how global food companies engage their supply chains. The scorecard targeted the world’s 10 largest food companies on their policies shaping practices in their supply chains. The research underpinning the scorecard was substantive, which encompassed over 300 indicators across seven themes (gender, land, workers, farmers, water, climate change and transparency) and used dozens of different kinds of source materials to evaluate company performance.

In the Behind the Brands campaign, the scorecard was an important influencing tool. It was used as part of the engagement and influencing process with the companies, industry, investors and civil society more broadly. It was also sometimes used in public engagement communications, often with some simplification. In other words, the scorecard was a two-pronged tool: (1) a critically important output to measure company progress on important issues; and (2) a vehicle for influencing and engagement.

The Behind the Brands campaign did successfully tap into the competitive spirit. Top performing companies highlighted their performance through announcements on their website and on the platforms they spoke on (e.g. see Unilever and Nestle’s public statements announcing their performance). In most cases, we saw evidence that their suppliers were being asked to change their practices because of the new policies (e.g. suppliers asking for guidance on how to meet new company commitments to land rights in their supply chains). We also witnessed a desire from most companies to improve their ranking and be seen as one of the leaders in the industry.

However, these improvements in company practice were not just due to the publication of a scorecard.  In fact, it’s very doubtful that the scorecard alone would have produced much change. The influencing strategies that accompanied it, aimed at leveraging consumer voice (e.g. via social media campaigning) and investor pressure (e.g. investors, often privately, but also through annual general meetings, asking companies questions about the issues captured in the scorecard) were also key to triggering this desire to improve scores. The scorecard was itself a useful tool in achieving both.

Engaging companies and investors with a scorecard

Constructive but critical engagement with the companies was key to the success of Behind the Brands. This meant giving companies an opportunity to input on the indicators and the assessments well before they were finalised. While not all company suggestions were taken up by Oxfam, there was a discussion with them and experts around whether their suggestions were relevant to all companies, and/or could be verified with publicly available information. This dialogue with companies also helped identify some leading company practices that the initial research had overlooked. It also meant that companies were more engaged, as they saw indicators that were shaped by areas where they were themselves demonstrating leadership. This improved the quality of the scorecard and fostered relationships between Oxfam and the companies that would help shape progress.

Complementary influencing strategies to engage other actors were also key to achieving changes in company practice. This included engaging investors, certification and standard-setting bodies within the sector, and other companies in the food sector, particularly those in the supply chain of the big 10. Getting investors to understand and agree with the analysis underpinning the scorecard was pivotal as they are key stakeholders that companies are focused on. Investors have power over the boardroom, and determine the share price. Through early and targeted engagement, Oxfam worked with allies within the financial sector. We succeeded in getting investors representing $1.4 trillion of assets under management to sign a joint letter, saying they supported Oxfam’s campaign and recognized that there “is a broad and urgent need for significant improvement across the sector”. Bilateral meetings with companies to discuss the data and events with the financial sector in London, Paris and Stockholm, were key to achieving this. The scorecard was the main vehicle for getting investors engaged and supporting the campaign. These investors played a key role in achieving the commitments we saw on land rights, women’s empowerment and climate change across the 10 companies (see score improvements below).

What should researchers consider?

It’s important to see the research process itself as an opportunity to get support, insights and buy-in from a range of individuals and organisations. To be most effective researchers should ensure companies are compared with their genuine competitors. The Behind the Brands campaign was also able to grab the attention of the senior leadership in the target companies, on issues such as land rights which they may otherwise have ignored, because investors and consumers posed questions prompted by the scorecard. The research process should be shaped to bring about these outcomes. The research is both a product and an engagement vehicle for influencing, and it needs to be shaped to play both roles effectively.

Erinch Sahan will be sharing more his thoughts and reflections on using research/evidence for influencing after the conference.  

Read more from our ‘Influencing’ series

Erinch Sahan