Beyond Green

We read and hear constantly about social responsibility -- what it means, how to do it, who does it best. Often anecdotal and top down, the cacophony of pundits is painful. It might be refreshing and even important to let real people tell us what brands and companies they see as socially responsible.

To find out, we tapped into Landor's consumer brand equity tool, BrandAsset® Valuator. In the United States, we measure 3,000 brands annually on more than 70 key measures of equity and imagery.

One of those measures is "socially responsible." Rather than telling people what it means to be socially responsible and thereby leading their responses down a preordained path, we let them self-define this loaded term. By looking at which brands and companies consumers consider socially responsible, we learn what is important to them and how they define "socially responsible."

The brands that made our 2008 list may surprise you. Once governmental organizations and those dedicated only to charitable giving and activities were screened out, the top 20 socially responsible business brands in America in 2008 were:



1. AAA11. Weight Watchers
2. Newman's Own 12. Walmart
3. Procter & Gamble 13. Gerber
4. Disney 14. Target
5. Blue Cross Blue Shield 15. ADT Security Services
6. Johnson & Johnson 16. 365 Organic
7. Tom's of Maine 17. Walgreens
8. Home Depot 18. General Electric
9. Amy's Kitchen 19. Allstate
10. Seventh Generation 20. Whole Foods

So what does this seemingly disparate group of brands have in common? If we think about them in their traditional business categories, it makes no sense -- large and small, retail and packaged goods, insurance and security services. Upon closer look, some commonalities emerge that may be classified as four principles of socially responsible brands:

  • The largest category -- brands that look after our well-being and health. These include AAA, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Johnson & Johnson, Weight Watchers, and Allstate. While remarkably different businesses, all are helping build or preserve our well-being. In this case, social responsibility means caring about us and our health and safety.
  • A commitment to and belief in family, home, and hearth. What do Procter & Gamble, Disney, Home Depot, and Gerber share? They all provide experiences, products, or services that touch family life. In this sense, social responsibility means being aligned with family values and social structures. It means providing goods and services that enable families to spend time together in a positive educational atmosphere.
  • Insightfully identifying a need and meeting it. Walmart, for all its detractors, brought affordable prices and friendly service to a broader array of Americans in more places than ever before and continues to thrive, despite the recession -- as does Walgreens. Meeting the functional needs of a whole population is socially responsible. Target figured out that there was money to be made by respecting its customers -- treating them as worthy of quality design, even if they couldn't afford luxury brands. Respecting your customers is socially responsible.
  • A more traditional slant on social responsibility -- a belief in doing the right thing. Newman's Own is legendary for donating its profits. Tom's of Maine and Seventh Generation make strong statements as "new age" companies dedicated to doing right by their customers and the planet through quality products. These companies communicate their values through their products. A business believing in something is socially responsible.

In summary, it is clear that U.S. consumers define social responsibility more broadly than conventional wisdom might. To the people it is more than just "doing good for society," it is also "doing good for me." And at the end of the day, isn't that really what all brands should be doing? Finding a way to do good for both their customers and the society as a whole?

So what advice can we offer companies that believe in social responsibility and want to behave and be perceived as more socially responsible? First, broaden the definition. Yes -- sustainability, greenness, and charitable support to your community are important, probably critical to both the future of the planet and your company. But first try to determine what you can do inside your own brand.

If you are a food company, can you demonstrate your commitment to family, home, and hearth by reducing the caloric content of your recipes? Can you identify an unmet need and meet it? (A real need, not just a line extension looking for an audience.) If you are a retailer, can you find more impactful and meaningful ways to give back to the community than just supporting the local Little League team or putting your name on a concert tour? If you are a manufacturer, what can you innovate that looks after our well-being and safety?

By thinking of social responsibility from the consumer's perspective rather than that of the press or your public relations firm, the opportunities for doing the right thing in your own way are broadened and, ultimately, will help build a sustainable brand and business.

1 comment about "Beyond Green ".
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  1. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, August 31, 2009 at 12:49 p.m.

    You closing paragraph, Susan, says it all. Leave media coverage or PR out of it, and explore what your *customers* think/feel/notice/expect in terms of social responsibility. It may be that some brands find the environmental angle is the most important to their customers and others will find that HR leads the way. Under that broader "triple bottom line" umbrella, each brand has a lot of unique opportunity to serve.

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