Insights from our Q1 CultureQ study led us to acknowledge that many people (aka consumers) believe brands have a responsibility to progress society. So, we recently posted this as a question (Do you think businesses or brands have a responsibility to help advance society?) across various social media sites to learn what people in the marketing communications and related industries think. Everywhere we posed the question, we got close to 100 highly animated responses. Clearly, the subject is one people feel incredibly passionate about.

The following unedited snippets demonstrate the diversity of views and strength of opinion surrounding this new role for brands:

“The responsibility of business is to advance itself. Every action since Roosevelt has exemplified this.”

“A business is a reflection of the leadership behind the product or service being sold. And people have a responsibility to advance society.”

“Any entity that exists by feeding off another is required to live within the ecosystem. Any entity that lives off another without contributing to the wellbeing of the ecosystem is a parasite and can live only as long as its host survives. Doing good is good for business.”

“CSR motives are not necessarily altruistic – in fact seldom so. It’s just good business sense.”

“Anybody who ignores society cannot build empire.”

“Brands advance society in everything they do without ever having to take responsibility for all of it. Every business moves society forward in billions of tiny steps.”

“At the very least they have the responsibility NOT to hurt it.”

“Let’s not confuse “advancing society” (what Microsoft has done) with “doing nice stuff” (which is what the Gates Foundation is up to). Society is advanced more by his Excel spreadsheets than it is by his water sanitation projects.”

“Society at large chooses which brands and businesses succeed and which fail.”

“For any Organization to live longer and grow, it should directly or indirectly help society to live a better life.”

“A loss-making business cannot contribute in a sustainable manner.”

Our take on what people seem to be saying is as follows:

There appears to be some skepticism about the intent of CSR.  Some people view it as a calculated and hollow PR exercise, where the end game is to enhance brand image and reputation, rather than a meaningful action that stems from an organizing business principle or cultural value.

A distinction should be made between responsibility and advancement.

  • The primary responsibility of businesses is not to advance society, indeed their first responsibility is to make profit for all their stakeholders and therefore sustain their quality of life.
  • Operating lawfully is the foundation for acting responsibly.
  • However, businesses do have a responsibility not to harm the communities in which they operate, or the world at large.  Acting responsibly also means contributing positively through being philanthropic and includes executive leadership being aware of the impact of a business’ actions.
  • When it comes to advancement, it appears that brands by their very nature advance society.  Yet, the concept of advancement is holographic and broad, from the awe inspiring to the seemingly simple and straightforward.
  • Trailblazing and technically innovative brands reinvent categories (Apple) or establish new ones (NASA).
  • However many brands advance society by subtly nudging us forward in a thousand small ways: think about simple things such as a better performing toothbrush, running shoe or can opener or a more intuitive computer program.
  • And, of course, there are brands like Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker (a newish company that you may not know yet), who bring social issues to the forefront of public consciousness and define their approach to business through their philosophy.

7 principles to connect CSR with brand development initiatives

Based on the feedback we’ve developed 7 principles to help businesses use Brand Citizenship as a means to connect CSR with brand development initiatives.

1. Recognize real people define Brand Citizenship in a broader context and include initiatives that exemplify how you simplify their day-to-day lives, inspire them and offer fair value as well as broader employee, community and environmental programs in communications

2. Connect the principles and values of your business with the things that matter to your consumers (ie. ethical and social issues and causes that matter)

3. Integrate a social consciousness into your core brand definition, communications, business culture and as applicable into operations

4. More closely align CSR initiatives, brand communications and product development activities into a singular cohesive strategic plan

5. Ensure executive leadership visibly and sincerely endorse the social and ethical activities the business supports

6. Treat your audiences as brand stewards and co-creators of progress, actively seeking ideas from them about how your brand can contribute more positively to society

7. Include Brand Citizenship metrics alongside traditional measurements of impact, market leadership and value

We’re exploring differences between leadership, good citizenship and favourite brands in our next round of CultureQ quant work and are looking very much forward to gaining greater insights!