A Better Steward Than Brands

We know that social causes are good for brands — reputation, recruiting, community relations. But are brands good for social causes?

More specifically, are brands the right advocate for important social issues?

More practically, what is the proper role for brands in social advocacy? Perhaps social issues are a poor fit for brands — not because brands are put at risk, but because brands are a meager ally.

By way of illustration, let me offer a story that Taylor Branch told in Pillar of Fire (1998), the second volume in his award-winning series on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In 1964, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize. To honor him, Coca-Cola Chairman Robert Woodruff set the wheels in motion for a local dinner, for which Atlanta Constitution publisher Ralph McGill privately praised Woodruff —  in particular, for Woodruff’s recognition that “he has to sell Coca-Cola all over the world.”



But selling tickets to this dinner proved to be no mean feat. White business leaders were reluctant, and many were defiant.

Some of this resistance crumbled when The New York Times reported on it, but it wasn’t until an "NBC Nightly News" broadcast called the dinner a test of Atlanta’s reputation for leadership and optimism that tickets sold out.

The evening was a success, and press coverage was glowing — which, to the surprise of most of those involved, turned out to be good for business all around.

Warning signs are my takeaway from this story. Acclaiming Martin Luther King, even for something as prestigious as a Nobel prize, was perceived as risky. No business leader, other than Woodruff, was jumping at the chance to do this. And Woodruff couldn’t do it alone.

Without the support of other business leaders and companies, the dinner might not have happened at all. In the end, it took the unfavorable light of the media for business leaders to step up.

All of this is endemic to brands and commercial enterprises. Concerns for perceptions that might hurt the business are always top-of-mind, as well they should be.

This works against brands as steadfast allies of social causes. Nor, typically, can individual brands make enough of a difference.

All brands need to rally around for an issue or a cause to receive enough support to matter. Brands are designed to solve category problems for consumers — and frankly, it takes all that brands can muster up just to do that one thing.

When social issues are added to a brand’s portfolio, purpose is often poorly served.

The learning curve is steep. Distractions build up. Focus gets lost. Anything not central to making money is always vulnerable.

We have seen a few instances over the past year or so that bear this out, with brands that took bold stances only to reverse course quickly when just a minority of consumers —  albeit a very vocal minority — pushed back.

If causes are not good for business, then business will not be good to causes. 

Many causes come calling on brands these days, for many reasons. Politics have become deadlocked.

Brands have cachet and visibility, not to mention resources of all sorts. Marketplace speed, especially in our digital age, is an advantage. And brands get something in return.

Kantar BrandZ analysis has found that brands strongly identified with purpose grew brand value from 2006 to 2018 at more than double the rate of brands that were weak on purpose.

But did the causes supported by these brands improve that much?

Management guru Peter Drucker once observed that the most effective brands are not focused on doing things right — but instead, on doing the right things.

When brands are built in this way, purpose doesn’t have to be layered in. It is built in from the get-go.

Brands do purpose and causes the right way when they put the highest principles at the heart of how they make money. But unless it’s done this way, social causes get carried around like an outer layer that is easily shed when the heat gets turned up.

Social causes deserve a better steward.

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