The cultural power of branding

Sean Brierley makes an astute observation (MW May 3) when he connects the retreat of the State with the increasing power and influence of corporations and their brands, and the accompanying rise in the scrutiny to which they’re subjected. But he’s wrong to conclude that “ethics should be kept away from brands” and that “if companies want to make the world a better place they should do so through company-level initiatives, not through the brands”. This approach is precisely the one which has been taken by most major companies, and is why so many are easy prey for motivated critics.

Think of the brands most frequently under attack: Nike, McDonald’s, BP. These are companies with extensive, well thought-out and progressive initiatives on a wide range of corporate citizenship issues, from community involvement to supply chain management. None of them has run a high-profile cause initiative, and most of their consumers – and critics – would be unaware of the extent to which they take social responsibility seriously.

Then think of the brands most famously associated with cause-related marketing: Tesco, Walkers, British Gas. Such campaigns help to create a positive image, which can in turn help deflect and temper criticism on social or ethical grounds. Of course, a cause-related marketing campaign won’t save a company from attack over an issue where it has genuinely transgressed, and nor should it. But separating corporate citizenship from brand marketing makes companies more vulnerable, not less.

We can all think of examples of crass and inappropriate associations between brands and social causes, but this is no reason for marketers to avoid such initiatives, any more than examples of dodgy ad campaigns are a reason not to advertise.

Today’s corporations have huge economic power, but it’s their brands that have social and cultural power. There are countless creative opportunities for brands to use that power for good. By doing so, they’ll not only become stronger brands, but will help their corporate owners present a more accurate and positive case when held to account.

Steve Hilton


Good Business

London W1

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