Historically, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has put the emphasis on how businesses are doing good. It’s become an increasingly varied checklist of “things we’ve done right”. Today though, socially aware audiences want to do business with brands that are good. They want brands to assume real responsibility. And to share that story.
The ethical consumer may be a well identified buyer in the marketing press, but customers themselves seem somewhat confused by what counts as a responsible brand.
Perhaps it’s inevitable. At some stage, a brand is going to do something to upset customers and prospects. That’s the price companies pay for trading in an era of greater and greater transparency. The key question is: when something does go wrong, will your brand be forgiven?
In an age where brands are increasingly seen as shared, companies can easily be lulled into treating social media as polling booths for their strategy. That’s not a good idea. However, there are times when you should respond to what is being said. The secret is knowing what to respond to, when and how.
In a recent address at Cannes, Monica Lewinsky made a plea for brands to play a more direct role in building a compassionate society: one where the power of social media to generate shame and humiliation (and gain money by doing so) was eschewed in favour of an environment that collectively supported and inspired individuals and their actions.
Recently Jan Rijkenberg raised some interesting points in an article (thanks Jeremy) in which he questioned the importance, indeed the relevance, of underpinning individual brands with the identities of their corporate owners. It does brands no favours, he suggests, to collectivise them as part of the bigger entity. In so doing, he maintains, they lose their individuality and therefore their specific appeal.
As more brands seek to engage in what Denise Yohn has referred to as the “cultural conversations” of today, they encounter reactions ranging from strong endorsement to cynicism about their motives. Starbucks, for example, hit turbulence with its Race Together campaign. (There’s an excellent analysis of why here.) Levis on the other hand seems to have had an easier ride with its Water<Less campaign. Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This campaign was hailed by many as honest, genuine and utterly in keeping with their beliefs.
This thought-provoking presentation includes some interesting observations on the contrasting effects of brands on the world. On the one hand the Y&R planners point out, brands are responding to consumer expectations that they will drive social change, spending around $18 billion a year on charitable efforts and using their financial clout and influence to affect real change. On the other, some of the biggest brands now know more about us as consumers and individuals than government agencies and we have no real ways of knowing how they will use that information, and to what effect, going forward.
There are those who continue to frame the role of business in purely commercial terms. Business is hard enough, and the demands of shareholders and the markets so insistent, these people say, that companies need to avoid the ‘distractions’ of infusing a moral platform into what they do. They should just get on with making profits. That’s their purpose. After all that’s what shareholders demand and that’s typically what they’re compensated on.
Some brands and some sectors have baggage. They’re seen as bad. Or they have a reputation for behaving badly. Or they are still trying to win back confidence after a disaster. Or they’re part of a sector that people don’t like. Or a segment of the population would like them to go away. For whatever reason they can’t seem to convince their detractors that they have good intentions. Critics love to hate on them. They attack these brands for what they sell, what they support, what they don’t support, what they say or don’t say. They cast doubt on their motivations. They draw attention to their shortfalls … I have no problem with this in one sense. The right to examine and critique is a sign of a robust democracy. So is the right to dissent.