Good corporate citizenship is good for the brand

In these days of corporate penitence and punishment, as blue serge is replaced by grey sackcloth, and the music in Bay Street's high-speed elevators takes on a monastic tone befitting the spartan conditions of an unrelenting bear market, it's tough to get excited about where to look for brand value.

In these days of corporate penitence and punishment, as blue serge is replaced by grey sackcloth, and the music in Bay Street’s high-speed elevators takes on a monastic tone befitting the spartan conditions of an unrelenting bear market, it’s tough to get excited about where to look for brand value.

Some of what were once unassailable case studies in the literature of brand management are now tarred with the same brush that has painted Adelphia, Tyco, Enron and Imclone black. Take Martha Stewart, the doyenne of American domestication. Even she is caught in the downdraft of her own alleged fear of losing what amounts to chump change for someone of such immense wealth.

There are those who remind us that it is normal in the aftermath of every bubble economy for a certain number of opportunists and charlatans to be exposed by the hollow stratagems of their own greed. And that legions of now-chastened corporations will pledge to behave more ethically. But as the world gets smaller, trade gets freer and global markets become more interdependent, the psychological after-effects are more widespread and significant.

So here we are in the midst of a global crisis of confidence in the once proud free market system. And just as, after the market crash of 1929, governments moved to protect banks, companies and individuals from future financial ruin with bankruptcy protection laws, they are now moving to shield investors from similar ruin with more rigorous corporate governance.

Whether they emerge as rules, regulatory frameworks or actual laws, most corporations will be compelled to behave with greater transparency and integrity. How else to win back investor confidence?

There is of course another way. Some corporations have voluntarily declared that they will operate more ethically, thus jumping the queue and making later adopters look more reluctantly compliant, and thus less trustworthy. But dig a little deeper.

At a time in history when global problems of population growth, declining health, distribution of wealth, access to education, inadequate nutrition, impact of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, deteriorating ecosystems, diminishing freshwater supplies, rapid rates of urbanization, increased human mobility, and access to communications networks all require innovative solutions, there is enormous opportunity for business to go beyond a transparent balance sheet and recognize the opportunities that lie within these mission-critical issues.

Most of these problems are at their worst in the developing world. As that world becomes more affluent, more educated and more skilled, while at the same time our own economies mature and populations level out, it is clear that facing these issues holds the key to our future prosperity.

It is therefore in the best interests of western enterprise to focus its energy and attention on treating these fundamental environmental and social problems as critical business challenges.

Brands that may now be tarnished by the conservative self-interest of their corporate owners have a chance to jump the queue in a big way. Look at the automobile, both the boon of developed economies and the bane of the environment. Work in fuel cell development and ‘drive-by-wire’ electronics is advancing the launch of a zero-emissions, hydrogen-fueled vehicle. The brands that make that happen – and some of the front runners are Toyota, GM, Ballard and bp – will be the white knights of the future. Clean air and a clean balance sheet. Now there’s a winning combination.

In the current issue of Fortune magazine, bp (formerly British Petroleum) has run an ad that addresses the issue of sustainable development. By setting and reaching its own goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, it can now claim to have jumped the climate-change queue, a line which is currently populated by a gaggle of non-compliant companies, governments and trade associations who lack the vision to look beyond the rear-view mirror of a crumbling fossil-fuel economy.

Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that bp still derives most of its revenue from fossil fuels. But it has aspirations and a pragmatic vision that it must move beyond petroleum to survive into the next generation.

For brands of the future, ethical accounting will not be enough. They will need the vision and the courage to derive share value from building the health and prosperity of the communities in which they operate. Brands that don’t will die with the rust-belt economy that created them.

Will Novosedlik is a brand strategist at TAXI Advertising and Design in Toronto. He can be reached at novosedlik@taxi.ca.