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How Transparency Changes Business

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At first glance, Bo Muller-Moore doesn’t look like much of a threat to the corporate world. Muller-Moore is a Vermont-based artist who has a small business selling T-shirts adorned with the slogan “Eat More Kale.”

But when Atlanta-based fast-food chain Chick-fil-A Inc. sent Muller-Moore a cease-and-desist letter in 2011 — arguing that the “Eat More Kale” phrase infringed on Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan — Muller-Moore fought back. Taking his plight to social media (and posting a copy of Chick-fil-A’s letter to him on Facebook), Muller-Moore ended up launching “a sophisticated … battle that brought [him] free legal representation, increased sales, strong public support, and media coverage in publications such as Time and The New York Times,” notes David Orozco in his article “Using Social Media in Business Disputes.”

In the end, Muller-Moore prevailed, getting his own trademark for “Eat More Kale” — along with lots of publicity that was good for him and not as good for Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A, whose “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan is positioned in advertising as a message written by cows, ended up adopting a more conciliatory tone toward the “Eat More Kale” concept. “Cows love kale, too,” was the response a Chick-fil-A spokesperson gave to the news that Muller-Moore had obtained his trademark.1

The story of Muller-Moore and Chick-fil-A illustrates a theme explored in this issue’s special report: how increased transparency — and, in particular, the ready flow of information in a digital world — is changing the environment in which corporations operate, as well as the distribution of power between large organizations and those who challenge them. As Robert D. Austin and David M. Upton write in their insightful article “Leading in the Age of Super-Transparency”:

“Evocative images and events have always propelled causes and controversies, but not always from such obscure, unexpected, or geographically remote sources — or with such speed. … Today’s controversies … spring to life in myriad, overlapping online communities and get distributed via networks of unaccountable independent agents sharing information in real time.”

Austin and Upton argue that these changes — and the increased difficulty organizations have keeping secrets in a digital era — should stimulate executives to reexamine both their operations and their assumptions about what information they can reasonably expect to keep under wraps. Executives need to anticipate the possibility that any issues related to their company — from poor working conditions at a supplier to legal correspondence sent to a small business — could someday be public knowledge.

Martha E. Mangelsdorf
Editorial Director
MIT Sloan Management Review

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