Brands with a Conscience: a subjective assessment

Stanley Moss

Summary: In January 2011, the Medinge Group’s annual Brands with a Conscience (BWAC) awards will be announced for their eighth consecutive year. The awards, created by a Stockholm-based international think-tank on branding, single out exceptional organizations and individuals for distinction in humanistic branding. What does this term represent? What are the awards, how were they created, how are they decided, who has won in the past and how can they be viewed in retrospect? This paper assesses the BWAC initiative, its evolution and possible significance.

OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, we have lived through a generation of disillusion with organizations and the brands they represent. Criticized in works like No Logo by Naomi Klein, corporations were handed blame for all of the world’s ills, and brands demonized as sinister and insidious forces bent on the destruction of society. There has even been the suggestion that brands contribute to an irreconcilable east–west divide. A great dialogue grew out of these accusations, challenging the idea that financial gain was the only driver for defining an organization’s success or merit. It was out of this dialogue that the Medinge Group was founded in 2000, when a group of interdisciplinary brand professionals came together to debate, foster and articulate ideas of what they called humanistic branding. The group asserted that brands had the potential to do well by doing good, that ethical behaviour needed to become a cornerstone of corporate governance. The group’s annual Brands with a Conscience awards were created out of this extended conversation. Over a period of seven consecutive years (2004–10) companies large and small, known and invisible, young and old, drawn from all categories, have been singled out for distinction as recipients of Brands with a Conscience awards. There is no monetary prize attached to the awards, though winners are permitted to use the BWAC logo in their own communications. But an array of categories, sizes and nationalities can be seen, even in a short list of names drawn from past winners: Grameen Phone, BP, IKEA, Toyota Prius, Sanrio, Pictet et Cie., Slow Food Movement, Innocent, Happy Computers, Alibaba, architect Paolo Soleri, Virgin Fuels.
   The Medinge Group initiated the BWAC awards concept in 2003, intending to recognize brands whose conduct demonstrated humanistic values, and to call attention to or to encourage them. The first nominations were made via group-wide emails. Lively internet-borne debate followed. In making their nominations, members were asked to evaluate from brands’:

• reputation and self-representation;
• history;
• direct experience a member might have with the brand nominated;
• media presence of the brand;
• and an assessment of the organization’s expressed values of sustainability.

   Over the years the system of nominations and judging has evolved into a formalized automated process which today employs on-line nominating and voting, while preserving the collegial internal debate in the run-up to the final balloting. The voting is a closed process, and only members of the group may nominate, discuss and vote.
   From August until October, Medinge Group members post their nominations. Members carry out their own due diligence to support their nominations. Once the nominations are posted debate begins among the membership. Medinge members consider six elemental criteria on any nomination:

• leadership: how committed is management to brand and its cause? Does the leadership team live out the values of the brand?;
• authenticity: how well articulated is the brand visually and experientially? How evident is its ethical programme, and the degree to which it is sincere?;
• humanity: how evident are the human implications of the brand? How motivated is the brand’s humanity? How visible is the brand’s conscience?;
• community: how heavily does the brand invest in relationship-building? How deep an advocate is the brand for "caring for one another"?;
• accountability: is the brand visibly accountable for its actions? Does the brand apologize when things go wrong?;
• belief: does the brand take risks in line with its beliefs? Does the brand acknowledge that we are all equal?

   Following the nomination and debate phase, around November 1, a ballot is sent to all members of the think-tank and voting occurs. Members are also given the opportunity to abstain. There are normally 40 to 50 nominees and only seven or eight winners. The first week in December BWAC winners are announced to the membership. In the first week of January the winners are made public through a PR campaign. In the first week of February the Brands with a Conscience certificates are presented at a ceremony during the annual Medinge Group meeting in Paris. In 2006 the group added a unique category commendation, the Colin Morley Award, recognizing exceptional achievement by an individual or non-governmental organization. Colin, a member of the Medinge Group, died in the London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005. The award commemorates his visionary work in humanistic branding. So far the winners of the Colin Morley Award have been Shakespeare’s Globe, Star Schools, Paul Newman and Muna Abusulayman.
   Though the awards are granted by a group of 20 international brand professionals—mostly white, mostly European and mostly male—the variety of BWAC winners over the years has shown a commendable range in size, visibility, location, and segmentation. A small collective in rural Nepal was named in the same list as a huge British multinational petroleum company in 2006. A tea producer in Sri Lanka appeared as a winner in the same year as an American carpet manufacturer. The BWAC awards tend to contextualize historically what the climate of business was at the time they are given. 2009’s awards had several winners focused on issues of water. Twenty ten’s awards lauded two financial institutions in an era of criticism against that segment of business. The same year both an Indian and a Chinese company appeared in the winners’ list, acknowledging the world’s largest emerging markets. The Brands with a Conscience awards are extended not only to acknowledge results, but may be given for the promise they carry, with attention paid to the potential for change they can influence. Virgin Fuels was encouraged in 2007 for their innovative model on alternative energy. Fetzer Vineyards received an award in 2008 in recognition of their sustainable wine-making programmes. BP was lauded for their green reidentification and renewables’ policy in 2006. Yet in some instances the award has been granted in spite of other mitigating factors, such as in the case of IKEA, who were recognized in 2007 for their strong anti-corruption stance in Russia, while no mention was made of their promotion of consumerism or destruction of forests in the manufacture of their products.
   In any altruistic endeavour there is bound to be blowback, and the Brands with a Conscience awards are no exception. Medinge’s 2006 award to Toyota Prius did not anticipate the massive recall of this particular model in 2010, nor the Chairman’s public apology for subjecting its customers to such a massive safety issue; the brand is still in recovery. BP has been a succession of bad-news stories which demonstrate how it has gone nowhere near ‘Beyond Petroleum’. In the year following Whole Foods’ BWAC award it was revealed that the chairman had been manipulating his own stock price and savaging his competition with pseudonymous weblog posts. Virgin Fuels never came close to its own promises on green policy. Kiva was forced to admit that it could not verify disposition of funds dispersed in microlending as it represented on its website. Freeplay Energy introduced a line of visionary alternative energy products but showed catastrophic financial management.
   The Brands with a Conscience awards have also showcased brands whose humanistic qualities endure. Grameen Phone’s founder, Mohammed Younis received a Nobel Prize in 2009 for his innovative work in microfinance for developing economies. Holland’s Chocolonely stands as a brilliant and inventive example of ethical branding, which brought to the forefront issues of slavery and the production of chocolate. Innocent continues to make the world a better place through its recycling initiatives and its abiding relationships with local producers. Happy Computers is consistently named as one of the top workplaces in the UK, with its solid values and productive community work a testament to humanistic vision. Patagonia remains a brand true to its stated values in a conflicted market-place. The American actor–philanthropist Paul Newman posthumously retains his distinction as the most generous man on earth on a per-capita basis, having given away over $240 million to worthy causes during his lifetime.
   Today the speed of information factors in the creation and destruction of brands. A reputation can be built over a century and ruined overnight. The yearly interval for naming these awards could be a fail-safe for their validity. It is the hope of the Brands with a Conscience initiative that organizations which understand humanistic and ethical principles will thrive, and that these annual awards can celebrate their potential and urge their emulation. The Medinge Group’s work continues, questioning the way that brands are built, what they stand for, how they affect the world we live in. Until humans achieve perfection and the world transforms into a utopia the Brands with a Conscience awards will retain a unique relevance.

Special thanks to Patrick Harris, Nicholas Ind, Ian Ryder and Jack Yan for invaluable help in the preparation of this article.

Stanley MossBrands with a Conscience: a subjective assessment

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