Brand equity, positive change and the bottom line

Camden's John Dutton argues there is a purely financial argument for brands taking a stand on social responsibility.
Lightlife Foods Prepared Burger

By John Dutton

If you’re an industry leader, is it also possible to show societal leadership when buffeted by financial headwinds? Maple Leaf Foods might be a case in point.

I’ve been vegetarian since the late 80s, an early adopter where animal welfare was concerned. Many years later, the positive impact of a non-meat diet for the climate is a welcome plus. So when I read the news earlier this month that packaged protein giant Maple Leaf is cutting its marketing budget for non-meat products, I sighed a little. Was this a sign that the seemingly inexorable trend towards meat alternatives is running out of steam?

Massive investments in plant protein since 2019 by Canada’s flagship meat packing company have been a huge step in the right direction for an international industry that has been targeted for criticism. That same year, the co-chair of the working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, “We don’t want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

Of course it’s true that government policy can drive positive change, but any corporation with a CSR initiative has, by definition, also acknowledged its impact on people and the planet. Maple Leaf is one such company. Its corporate website states in big, bold type: “We’re a carbon neutral food company on a purposeful journey to Raise the Good in Food through better nutrition, safer food and workplaces, more humane animal care, and sustainability efforts that protect our planet.”

This is all to be applauded. But does this jive with a reduction in dollars spent on advertising and promotion for plant protein products?

Maple Leaf is a public company that must return a profit to shareholders, so a 15% plant protein sales slump in Q2 could not be swept under an accountant’s rug. The question is, do the expectations of corporate stakeholders actually need to clash with a commitment to CSR goals at every wobble in the market?

Here is where I’ll stop talking specifically about Maple Leaf, because there’s a bigger picture, and it’s about true corporate leadership where CSR initiatives are concerned.

Markets are interrelated, organic entities. They can shift unpredictably. Consumer needs evolve. Trends come and go. And of course every reader of strategy knows that the role of consumer advertising is to influence behaviour within a specific market. This means that the “R” in CSR is significant. Any corporation that ascribes to CSR goals is perfectly aware of the impact its decisions will have in driving market change. This impact can be negative (e.g. encouraging people to smoke in a bygone era) or positive (e.g. giving non-athletes the confidence to “just do it”).

Individuals are asked to do a lot of labour and give up many pleasures in life to help avoid the climate catastrophe. We can buy hybrid cars, fly fewer miles, and, for sure, eat less meat. But no person is an island. We are social beings who act within social structures. Some of these structures are organic and fluid, such as consumer markets, while others exist within legal and financial frameworks, such as corporations. These corporate structures can have an outsized influence on issues like climate change and animal welfare. They drive opinion and shift behaviour. Whatever role governments and individuals might have played, if oil companies had shown a shred of corporate responsibility over the last 50 years, we wouldn’t be witnessing global heating right now.

To return to Maple Leaf briefly: the company has set absolutely fantastic sustainability goals, underpinned by the following statement: “We’re on a journey to become the most sustainable protein company – not just in Canada – but on earth.” As a vegetarian it feels weird to congratulate a corporation that operates factory farms, but they genuinely seem to be doing whatever they can to steer a behemoth in a new direction as quickly as possible.

But beyond CSR, there is a purely bottom-line argument for showing market leadership on critical social issues, and it goes beyond quarterly results. Brand equity is a financial asset which increases in value over years and decades if its corporate stewards have a genuinely long-term vision for shareholder returns.

The thing is, once you admit that you have a responsibility, you cannot simply abdicate that responsibility by slavishly following markets. Capitalism is often criticized for a host of social ills. What is capitalism really good at though? Convincing people that they need to buy things. So CSR leaders have an opportunity to boost their brand equity by encouraging eco- and socially conscious consumption as much as possible, even if it involves taking a short-term financial hit.

Meekly responding to market whims and wiles isn’t good enough from a CSR perspective. It’s an abdication of responsibility. Any corporation that truly cares not only about the wellbeing of the planet’s inhabitants but also about its bottom line would do well to give an outsize push to any earth-friendly products and services it is selling, whatever the market seems to be saying.

John Dutton is chief creative officer of Camden