Why brand altruism will be ultimate litmus test

Unimpressed by brands’ add-on philanthropy, consumers are beginning to demand that corporate ethics are integral to the service, says Alan Mitchell

One of the more astonishing spectacles of the past few weeks was Monsanto chief executive Robert Shapiro’s almost grovelling appearance before a Greenpeace conference, where he apologised for “arrogance” over the GM foods debacle.

Shapiro didn’t admit that GM foods were a bad idea, of course. But faced with a massive commercial and PR disaster, Monsanto has joined the growing list of major corporations seeking dialogue with critical pressure groups, so it can dance with the raptors, as PriceWaterhouseCooper’s corporate reputation expert Glen Peters so graphically put it.

The trouble with debate, says Shapiro, is that it is an either/or, win-lose process, whereas dialogue involves a search for common ground and “tends to be both/and”.

These moves signal a bigger shift than may appear at first sight. The battles between Greenpeace and the likes of Shell and Monsanto, and between the Consumers’ Association and the car companies are acid-tests for each side’s brand. They provide unequivocal answers to fundamental questions such as who do consumers really trust, and where do their affiliations really lie.

Again and again, the biggest corporations of the world, with all their king’s horses and all their king’s men, are being humiliated.

As Shell director Cor Herkstroter admitted in a speech relating to its battles with pressure groups, Shell has been “slow in understanding that these [pressure] groups were tending to acquire authority”. He continued: “The institutions of global society are [being] reinvented as technology redefines relationships between individuals and organisations.”

He is right. This relationship between individuals and organisations is being renegotiated in a way that increases the say or influence consumers and citizens have over organisations’ policies and actions.

Consumers are beginning, albeit in a fumbling, uncertain manner, to expect corporate leviathans to turn Ford’s dishonest advertising slogan “Everything we do is driven by you” into an operational reality. Consumers want to take brands beyond their current role as an arm’s length “offer” or “promise” which they pick and choose between, to become agents which act on their behalf, so that they become brands which are not only positively accountable and responsive to consumers in terms of the products and services they offer, but also the role they play in society.

This poses a huge challenge for marketers because it is through the brand that this renegotiation is taking place. What does it stand for? Who does it represent? And how? And while corporate leaders are understandably fearful that giving in to this sentiment will open a floodgate of unreasonable expectations, doctrinaire protestations that “it is to shareholders that we are accountable” won’t wash.

The Internet is teaching consumers to look for brands that act on their behalf as search agents, buying agents and the like. Likewise, set piece battles between pressure groups and corporations – and more amiably, the massive success of a range of cause related marketing (CRM) initiatives – are teaching consumers that companies and brands could act on their behalf in the social sphere too.

A new book, Cause Related Marketing, by Business in the Community CRM supremo Sue Adkins underlines the dilemma. As Adkins demonstrates, managed properly as a genuine win-win initiative, CRM can work wonders for both firms and causes because at some level, to some degree, a significant proportion of consumers do care.

But so far the commitment has been relatively limited. Marketers have at least embraced CRM as a tie-breaker. Given parity in other key attributes, if a CRM initiative flips the brand choice in the company’s favour (or deepens existing customers’ commitment to the brand), it is worth it.

In turn, sophisticated consumers have been happy to play the game in an arm’s-length sort of way. Once they are convinced this is not a cynical ploy but a genuine game where they can only come out on top, they are happy to join in.

But the very success of CRM is beginning to open up a Pandora’s box of changed consumer expectations. Consumers are increasingly aware that many global corporations are bigger and better resourced than many a nation state. Which means that they must have similar, or greater, ability to “do good”. If, limited as it is, CRM can achieve so much, what could be achieved if these gargantuan organisations really put their corporate backs into the causes they either supported or tussled with?

What if Monsanto stopped pussyfooting around and adopted a core principle that the effects of any application of its technologies must be environmentally benign? What if, instead of destroying the environment in order to make money out of selling oil, companies like Shell used some of the money to help repair environmental damage across the world?

As Adkins remarks in her book, “multibillion pound multinational corporations could quite literally change the world”. And as they realise this, consumers are beginning to expect corporations to move beyond mere “compliance” with the law to embrace “compliance-plus” and join the crusade.

Far-sighted business leaders are beginning to see the enormous potential of such a “both/and” instead of “either/or” approach. It could neutralise the pressure group threat, perhaps even stealing their thunder. It would recruit charities and other causes as beneficial allies. And, more importantly, it could catapult their own brand to new levels of respect and esteem.

Adkins quotes Unilever strategist Jerry Wright as follows: “Large corporations play an ever increasing role in the global economy and so have a greater impact on global society. People in their dual role as consumers and citizens will expect companies to use their power and influence wisely and meet their needs more effectively – [and] to contribute to the development of the societies in which they operate.”

At the recent Marketing Forum the Future Foundation director Michael Willmott said: “Corporate citizenship is part of the service you offer your customer.” For tomorrow’s megabrands, CRM in its broadest sense won’t be an optional extra any more. It will be an accepted, and expected, part of the product itself.


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