As I'm reading Atlas Shrugged for the nth time, I started thinking about socially responsible branding (SRB). In Ayn's world, that phrase alone would be grounds to have me shot. But SRB, done right, is an authentic and rewarding way to earn an honest living. Let's look at the different options for SRB:
First, the real SRB is the company that allocates dollars to a good cause -- say The Body Shop or Ben & Jerrys -- and its corporate culture supports and reflects its support to that cause. The cause IS the brand. It's a win-win-win for the company, the cause and the customers. The brand is appealing to a distinct target audience that shares a common belief system with the company. The company makes money, the cause makes money and the customers feel good about their purchases. Hurray for everyone.
Another real SRB is the brand that doesn't align its business with a particular cause, but the brand's execs make decisions in favor of the brand's long-term rational self-interest. In other words, they understand the law of causality. They understand that the only way to survive and thrive in today's fickle economy is to be honest with customers, to overpromise and underdeliver, and to genuinely care about making their customers' lives easier or better. Customers are like dogs; they can usually smell it when companies are just in business to make money. Not that making money is wrong; but trying to make a buck without expending the effort to produce significant value is trying to cheat the system. It just doesn't work.
The anti-SRBs are the companies who make a show of giving to causes, but their business practices are not socially responsible. Let's go beyond toxic waste for a moment. I'm talking about "what can we get away with" mentality rather than "how can we make money by adding real value." I'm thinking of the phone companies who donate money to local charities while marking up surcharges by 500% because that's a great way to make more money without increasing their publicized basic line charge or adding any more value to justify the income. (Yes, that's right, many of those fees on your phone bill are federally condoned but not federally collected. Check out http://abtolls.com/information/readingbills.html for more info). And the phone companies have trapped themselves in a pricing war, so none of them want to be honest about how much your phone bill REALLY will be after you've switched providers to save money. I'm waiting for the day when a phone company will have the cajones to say: here's our basic line charge; yes, it's higher than some of the other companies but we're not making an exorbitant profit on taxes and surcharges; what's on this proposal is exactly what you're going to see on your first bill; and by the way, our prices are slightly higher because we're going the extra mile on customer service and reliability, and you'll get what you pay for. OK, I'll stop my rant on the phone industry... (if there are any phone companies out there who don't do this, my apologies and I'd love to know who you are)...
Bottom line, I believe that socially responsible branding is NOT about donating to causes. It's about taking the long-term view and asking, "what's the right thing to do" instead of "what can we get away with." It's about creating and using corporate values as a decision-making tool, a compass of sorts, instead of publishing a bunch of list of values because it's expected and it looks good, but doesn't truly drive the decision-making process. And if you can work out a way to support and communicate those values by contributing to a cause, great; that's solid reinforcement of your brand. But socially responsible branding starts with a value-oriented philosophy, not with an open checkbook. A donation does not a socially responsible brand make.