A Better Role for Brands in the New New Economy

This article describes how I became an evangelist for corporate social responsibility:

San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, May 21, 2001

I had been a brand strategist for 20 years when my father, a cattle farmer in upstate New York, turned to me and said “Isn’t brand dead?” 

Dad knew that best known brands like Nike, Exxon, and Starbucks had become stigmatized, accused of everything from promoting rampant consumerism to enslaving Indonesian children. But he knew nothing about the Silicon Valley world I worked in – building brands for high-tech companies. Dad thought the idea of my consulting company having a web site was so wacky that he put the announcement I sent him up on the fridge, right between the photos of family and top performing cows.

And at first, I passed off his statement about brand being dead to his being cranky. He was, after all, dying of cancer, and he was alone.

But later, when I looked at the incomparable beauty of my father’s farm, I knew that what I did, what I believed in, what I’d done for twenty years, would be responsible for its destruction. Already, the newly discovered fad of fly-fishing had brought unwanted visitors to his small section of the Neversink River. Deer hunters had turned to newer technologies and now snowmobilers destroyed the quiet in a much harsher way than the sound of gun shots ever had. When I’d walk up Blue Hill, the mini mountain behind Dad’s farm, I’d pick up countless beer cans. It seemed that everywhere, consumerism was edging out nature.

Dad had read articles in the newspaper or The New Yorker about the anti-brand movement. He embraced its message of simplicity and sustainability. He had grandchildren. He didn’t want to leave them a world with the ethic of more more more, an endless acquisition of the new replacing an appreciation for the timeless. The endless encroachment of things on his fourteen acres of heaven was undeniable, and I mourned with him.

How could I continue to promote the idea of branding in an era when branding is associated with consumerism gone mad? If business is this era’s most powerful institution, far more trusted than nation states or organized religion, doesn’t business have an obligation to use that voice for good? Shouldn’t brands be the platform to lead our world out of its intractable problems, global problems like poverty and environmental destruction and provides visionary global solutions, to help shape a future that is sustainable?

I’m not talking about businesses becoming tree-huggers. Every business, however, has a small piece of the solution that it can address – often that it must address to ensure a constant stream of profits in the future. And what better way to do that than to use its brand as a platform for change?

Simply by describing a positive change, by using its brand as the voice of support for that change, companies can make that change happen.

A lot of companies partner with philanthropies to support ongoing change. Companies align themselves with a nonprofit whose agenda fits nicely with the corporation’s. American Express and Avon are examples, raising awareness for hunger and breast cancer, respectively. Fashion designers are particularly adept at raising provocative issues, making their brands synonymous with controversial causes – witness Bennetton with race relations and Liz Claiborne with domestic violence.

But only a handful of companies have managed to make their advocacy truly authentic, melding their brand voice with business interests and a vision for a better world. One of the best examples of this is a former client, Cisco Systems. Cisco has run commercials that describe the power of the Internet to provide education and information to everyone. In so doing, it is openly promoting its own products, which makes the message believable. But it also promotes the possibility of a better world, if one believes that education leads to better standards of living, less violence, and awareness of global community issues. The Cisco brand is transformed from just an agent of promotion to an agent of change.

Furthermore, Cisco’s philanthropic efforts make universal access to education a reality. Working with government officials involved in education in third world countries, Cisco has extended its network training curriculum to secondary schools throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is the company’s “give-back to get,” giving away free curriculum to get trained network professionals in emerging markets. Cisco’s business, brand, and change efforts all strengthen each other.

British Petroleum is another example. Its new branding campaign is aimed at changing the company from an oil company to an energy company, clearly self-serving in this post-modern era where fossil fuels are going away. But BP’s campaign promotes solar energy, which is clearly one way to save our world from extinction. And it describes very practical ways that consumers can replace oil with solar energy, by buying BP solar panels, which in turn gives the company revenues. Using its brand to deliver a message worldwide, BP is actually creating a world where the company will be saved by saving the world. Its brand is transformed, and in that transformation, it becomes a much stronger and more credible voice.

My father brands his cattle, the bulls and cows he keeps on his land beside the Neversink River, where he fishes for trout. He doesn’t even think about doing good to do well – it’s all about keeping the cattle healthy and the river clear. As president of the local fishing association, he sponsored a study of that water’s health, and found that his cow dung was creating an imbalance in the river’s chemicals. So he moved half his cattle away from the river. There’s no split between his vision, his brand, and his community – it’s all seamlessly blended. I’d call Dad a hero, and he’ll like that.