Back Page: CSR in the social media age

Gaëtan Namouric, partner and ECD at Bleublancrouge, asks whether social media networks are holding brands to unrealistically high standards.

For strategy’s May issue Back Page, Gaëtan Namouric, partner and ECD at Bleublancrouge, pondered the effects of social media on CSR. Are social media networks imposing a new dictatorship on brands, obliging them to be perfect, and therefore all the same? Has our personal quest for perfection made us expect an unrealistic standard of integrity from brands? To view a PDF version of the back page, click here.

Written by Gaëtan Namouric, translated by Andrew Lord, illustration by Martin Dupuis

You and I are schizophrenic. Okay, not just “you and I,” but all of us. We have different personalities depending on when and where we are.

At home, at work, with friends, with family, we use the personality that shows our best side in any given situation. And this collective of characters adds up to just one you. That complexity accounts for a big part of human nature.

Though ’90s sci-fi predicted a homogenized society, who would have thought the standardization of humanity would be self-imposed? Despite our schizophrenia, the constant exposure of our private lives has made us all the same person.

Follow me on Facebook. You’ll see that I’m flourishing. I’m cultivated, I travel, I hop from airport to airport, I eat at amazing restaurants, I drink good wine, I’ve got the ocean at my feet, I’ve read all kinds of fascinating articles – and I did it all before anybody else.

I’m a model for others. And if we’re friends on Facebook, I bet we’ve got the same life. And all of our other friends do too. We’re a horde of happy, curious, fun people who’ve always got something interesting to say. We’re active, obedient robots.

We’ve turned ourselves into brands, subject to the same strategy and rigour as other consumer products. And like other brands, we’re constantly selling ourselves, struggling to justify our existence by building our reputations and making ourselves out to be good Samaritans. Building an image of good conscience that’s bad-quality free.

CEOs of big companies used to be happy making donations to causes that were somewhat distant from their experience. Charity was a sort of publicity tax, allowing companies to make a contribution to society while benefiting from some visibility.

Now the entire company has to sing the same anthem and put their values on a plaque in the front lobby. That’s how every employee knows them by heart and, more importantly, how clients see them on the way in. And the values are always the same whether you make soda, helicopters or toilet paper: teamwork, a desire to do better and respect (if you really think about it, they actually contradict each other).

Today, social networks and information overload push businesses to show more and be totally transparent. Constant mediatization demands greater consistency and rigour. Brands must maintain a singular, consistent personality inside and out.

But our robotic hearts expect brands to also be standardized. We don’t want them to manufacture in China, don’t want them to exploit people, want them to be greener, want them to be more sustainable, don’t want them to test on animals, don’t want them to contain fat, salt, sugar or anything. And by the way, we’d like the price cut 12 ways on Groupon.

The social contract we want brands to adhere to is unrealistic. Their quest for respectability may be a little vain, but we ask them to correspond to a vision of ourselves that is a lie.

What if we accept the fact that brands, like people, are imperfect beings?