Accountable companies build better brands

Benjamin Franklin famously said there’s nothing certain in the world “except death and taxes” and it seems even one of these may now be redundant.

Branwell profile

The issue of tax avoidance, note not tax-dodging, is creeping further on to the main news agenda with multinationals eBay, Ikea, Starbucks, Facebook, Vodafone and Boots in the spotlight.

Anyone who thinks that arcane discussions of tax law will not effect brand perception is living in a fantasy world. Witness the story on the plummeting YouGov BrandIndex Buzz score for Starbucks in the wake of a slew of media coverage on the company’s tax avoidance schemes.

Organisations like UK Uncut and Tax Justice Network will keep on lobbying while social media will be used to amplify difficult questions and dissatisfaction.

This must be distressing for marketers and communications directors whose plans to create brand love and to position their leaders as progressive thinkers are undermined by corporate behaviour towards short-term profits, of which tax avoidance is one manifestation.

There’s no doubt that these companies provide hundreds of jobs and show commitment to CSR initiatives. But all the positive actions that reinforce a marketing team’s efforts are increasingly overshadowed by the company’s need to maximise profits for shareholders.

However, there’s a new direction of travel that suggests companies should have a greater purpose written into their articles of incorporation than maximising shareholder profit. Heresy? Not according to new Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins and other executives like Unilever CEO Paul Polman.

Remember One Young World, the charity set up in 2009 by Havas luminaries “to create positive change”? It just held its third summit attended by business leaders, including Jenkins. While debating business ethics, he said: “Businesses that operate in an ethical way will be more successful. There’s a key difference between short term profits and shareholder value – shareholder value comes from the sustainability of the enterprise in its broadest terms, so it has to start with a well-run ethical organisation that has at its core a sense of purpose and of values that the organisation holds itself accountable for.”

Marketers are specialists at getting under the skin of an organisation and explaining its values to a wider audience – and helping hold it to account. There’s a real opportunity in helping your company work out what it stands for if you can get your voice heard at board level. It won’t be easy but worthwhile things never are.

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