Finding a better good: the leap to true responsibility

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puma brand signage

At a recent presentation, I introduced the concept of the “goodness movement”. I defined this as a global wish for social wellness that is driving corporate social responsibility today: a recognition by brands that those that are seen to do good perform better; and a response to a wish by consumers to make a difference. Buyers want to tell themselves they are doing the right thing, and as part of that, they want affirmation on the part of the brands they buy from that good is being done.

That’s never been easier. Purchases are increasingly tied to beneficial actions that, if I can refer back to my direct marketing agency days for a moment, amount to a “social premium”. The new coupon is social. Once consumers clipped physically to get money off. Increasingly, when they buy the brand, a good action is now included. Pampers, for example, have teamed up with UNICEF in a programme that sees one dose of the tetanus vaccine donated for every pack of product bought.

Brands are increasingly presenting consumers with what I termed in the presentation a “million little actions” in the form of these social premiums. And those actions range from giving to doing to supporting.

Fairtrade is a powerful example of this “social premium” at work. The company has grown to being the most recognised and best understood ethical brand in the developed world because they have understood the power of consumers feeling that they are making a difference for others. Fairtrade works so powerfully as a “social premium” brand because it has such a very simple message: look for this label, buy the product and someone gets paid fairly. The brand has succeeded for four key reasons. It found that the market was willing to pay a premium for social justice. It recognised that it had something that corporates wanted: a name for enhanced reputation. It understood that in a world of brands, you had to be a brand in your own right to thrive. And it delivered a simple value equation to consumers who now know what they have to do, and the difference it makes. Goodness couldn’t be easier.

Just as brands reflect who people are, so, increasingly, do the social actions they choose to take or be associated with. People buy cage free and free range because they want to see change in the world but also because it’s available and it reinforces what they want to be seen to believe. No-one wants to be seen as cruel or as condoning cruelty. The critical success factor here is amplification: giving people small tangible actions they can take that will, collectively, generate big inspiring benefits that they want to be associated with.

What the goodness movement looks to bridge of course is the increasingly important link for consumers between what a company offers (product) and how a company behaves (reputation). There is an increasing expectation on the part of consumers that good brands are sold by good companies. And good companies are judged by how much they impart, and more particularly are seen to impart, goodness.

At the same time, brands wishing to highlight their goodness find themselves under significant scrutiny from the likes of Oxfam with its Behind the Brands campaign that increasingly function as social proof for goodness assertions.

I predict that we will see more of this. And such tension between what brands say, what consumers believe and others’ assessment of the actions being taken are positive in the sense that, slowly, responsibility is becoming a mainstream conversation and a tangible commercial factor.

Recently, I listened to a Kim Hill interview with Pavan Sukhdev, founder and CEO of GIST Advisory, on Radio New Zealand. What an amazingly interesting man. In the interview, Sukhdev discussed in detail the need for companies to step up and fully audit and declare their externalities (by which he means the full cost of what they do) as Puma has been doing since 2011. I want to come back to some of the things he discussed in a later post, but, here, let me just touch on one idea he discussed that is highly pertinent to the goodness movement.

While greenwash is a deception he says, it is also a transition. Instead of simply hunting out and dismissing greenwash, analysts, the media, investors and consumers need to read and analyse what companies are saying they are doing and then hold them accountable to that data. In other words, they need to pursue the investigation. Part of not taking things at face value is pressing companies to declare the real value and the real impact using their own statements as the basis for searching questions.

And while greenwash is a bad side-effect of the goodness movement, Sukhdev believes, it is actually a stage in the social evolution of a company. First there is denial that they are doing anything wrong, then reluctant acceptance, and then greenwash. At least, the spin raises consumer expectations and indeed government expectations about the company’s commitments. What the world must now do, he says, is use the disclosure to prompt real actions. Some declaration, even spun declaration, is better than none.

At the moment, as I have said previously, most responsibility statements tend to amount to a catalogue of good works intended to protect corporate reputation. Looking ahead though, and taking on board Sukhdev’s points, a number of storylines have the potential to interweave to form a much more accountable and transparent model. Perhaps this is the future direction of how we truly monitor good actions. Those storylines might be developed by the companies themselves, they may be done or verified in co-operation with third parties such as NGOs or they could even be crowdsourced through a range of sources including academic channels. I’m not pretending for one moment any of these options will be easy – and I’m not qualified to speak about the legal ramifications – but such an approach might include:

•  More comprehensive disclosure of the impacts of product manufacture and of the predicted longevity of  products themselves
•  How companies are trading off negative impacts they have identified in the manufacturing and sourcing processes (so that there is rectification in the same space as the damage that is being done)
•  What companies are doing by way of responsibility initiatives – e.g. social premiums
•  What they are offering consumers the opportunity to do by way of concrete actions and the true effects of those actions in terms of generating meaningful difference
•  How all of that compares with the total externality cost of the business and the strategic plans that brands have to close that gap over a set period of years

Photo of “PUMA Glow Logo 2013” taken by FuFu Wolf, sourced from Flickr

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