However can global brands do no evil?

It’s a brave chief executive who commissions and then publishes research on the ethics of global brands, even though he profoundly disagrees with the conclusions.

SABMiller chief executive Graham Mackay refuted the suggestion – a majority finding among a YouGovStone panel of over 1,000 opinion formers – that global brands have a negative effect on local-heritage brands, and the local culture behind them. He may well be right where his own industry, brewing, is concerned. Creating a global beer is proving a daunting task which the likes of Miller, Bud, Stella or indeed Brahma have so far failed to measure up to.

However, the point of the research, and the subsequent debate is not how brands find the world, but how the world finds brands. Do they do good, or do they do evil? Even if the views expressed by the panel are “somewhat idealistic and at times a little muddled” (according to the executive summary), that is the body of opinion with which global brands must contend.

It was a point well addressed during the debate (of which Marketing Week was a sponsor) by Coca-Cola chairman and former chief executive Neville Isdell. “Milton Friedman [the monetarist economist] said the only purpose of business was to make a profit. My view is that has changed in the 21st century,” he said. In other words, business has moved far beyond merely balancing the needs of share-holders and consumers into consideration of community and environmental issues. “You need sustainable communities to have a sustainable business. Are we there yet? No. But we are trying.”

Isdell successfully batted away suggestions from a sometimes hostile audience that Coke was nursing a guilty conscience over environmental “rape” after the Indian water-course scandal, by pointing out that a subsequent independent enquiry had exonerated Coke of depleting the aquifers for its own selfish advantage. Nonetheless, perception of the event seems to have had a profound effect upon the corporation, which is now committed to a so-called “water-neutral” strategy, whereby it returns to nature all the water it uses in the manufacturing process. Certainly, water shortage is very much a “21st-century” business issue with a future, and Coke has chosen its principal corporate-social-responsibility platform wisely.

Environmental irresponsibility, however, is only one of a litany of complaints that the global brand must grapple with. Other old favourites include cultural insensitivity and the cultivation of unrealistic, materialistic needs among people who will never afford them. There are a number of defences to these arguments (not least that the latter is an extremely patronising assumption by critics living in developed economies). But the safest position to adopt is that the global brand is neither a natural force for good or evil, but ethically neutral. It is a manifestation of an irreversible process that, bit by bit, is belittling the power of nation states and turning the world into one giant market.

There is an alternative to this process, as one of the debate’s speakers, Rita Clifton, pointed out: we can all go back to a pre-industrial world of subsistence agriculture. Assuming that is not a voluntary option, the best that can be expected of global brands is that they mitigate the process of inevitable change.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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