Conscientious brands

What is a conscientious brand? This article explores the key features of a conscientious brand and the implications for brand management.

Dr Nicholas Ind
Partner, Equilibrium

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011

WHILE CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IS a widely used and well-understood term, conscientious brands is not. Its origins lie with the Medinge Group, which since 2004 has given its annual Brands with a Conscience awards. The Medinge Group argues that a brand with a conscience has the following attributes.

• It has a visible conscience.
• It apologizes when things go wrong.
• It invests time and energy in relationship building.
• It promotes the value of caring for one another.
• It acknowledges that we are all fundamentally equal.
• It’s visibly accountable for all its actions.
• It takes risks in line with its values.

The attributes were not defined through research, but rather were derived from discussion among members of the Group.
   In thinking about brands as conscientious, one important association to emphasize is that of services dominant logic.1 Here we can argue that it is the connectedness of consumers and other stakeholders with the brand owner that creates the brand. A brand may be managed by an organization, but its meaning is formed out of the purchase, usage and dialogue that the organization and stakeholders engage in. This view is relational and suggests a model of inseparability between the one who offers and one who consumes. It shifts the idea of brand building from transactions to relationships: ’because a service-centred view is participatory and dynamic, service provision is maximized through an iterative learning process on the part of both the enterprise and the consumer.’2 The importance of this change of perspective is not only due to the dominance of service industries in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries3, but also to a reinterpretation of the process of exchange. Vargo and Lusch argue that everything, whether tangible or intangible, is a service. This distinction also serves to emphasize that increasingly brand owners cede control of their brands to consumers. As people use brands, discuss them with others, form communities of interest and interact online with companies, so the influence of the brand owner diminishes. Now a brand is created in a conversational space where the organization and the individual meet.
   The word conscientious also brings specific associations with it. It is a word that we normally apply to individuals and it suggests attributes such as hard-working, thorough and attentive. It conveys the idea that someone is aware of the needs of those around them. If we connect the word to brand, the implication is that the brand owner is capable of understanding and meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders; of extending sympathy and creating value for all.4 As Rorty notes,5 the moral imagination, which is essential to an ethical perspective, occurs when people are willing to move beyond the possibilties dictated by precedent and empathize with others. This is a view that is distinct from approaches that stress a narrow focus to creating value and recognizes instead the interconnectedness of all those that touch or are touched by an organization.
   This is becoming increasingly important as the size and influence of organizations and their impact on more aspects of people’s lives grows. Indeed, we can argue that the role of the organization has changed: ‘companies have to recognize their accountability not only to shareholders, but to all audiences and to society as a whole.’6 This is a point that Freeman7 makes when he writes that the stakeholder view is an ethical requirement for companies and that the linkage of different stakeholders requires a balanced approach. In their 2007 book Freeman, Harrison and Wicks8 note that the the primary aspect of corporations is cooperation. They suggest that the business organization should be a vehicle ‘by which stakeholders are engaged in a joint and cooperative enterprise of creating value for each other.’9

The attributes of ‘Conscientious Brands’
If we can argue that a conscientious brand is one that is cogniscent of, and tries to meet, the needs of all its stakeholders, what might this mean in terms of attributes? Building on the Medinge list, we would argue that there are three core attributes that are necessary for a brand to be seen as conscientious: a committed and inclusive approach, the ability to think long-term and a willingness to keep promises.
   One important omission from the core attributes however should be noted: altruism, which can be defined as an unselfish regard for the well-being of others. We encounter a problem here of who ‘others’ might be, but if we argue that ‘others’ encompasses stakeholders external to the organization, altruism creates a problem of imbalance. For as well as achieving the well-being of others, brands must be able to deliver well-being for themselves and those inside the organization. Altruism could consign a brand to destructive decisions. In its place we might argue that brands should have a selfish regard for themselves and for the well-being of others.

A committed and inclusive approach
A facet of conscientious brands is that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not seen as a marketing tool or a department or a process that orbits far away from the corporate sun, but is integrated into the fabric of the organization. The greater the orientation towards a communications-based approach, the stronger the tendency for CSR to be seen as superficial. In fact, telling consumers about CSR through traditional media such as advertising increases the risk of provoking scepticism.10 However, there are examples such as the Norwegian sportswear brand Stormberg,11 the Dutch Fair Trade pioneer Max Havelaar, the Swiss Bank, Pictet et Cie and the Bangladeshi telecoms operator Grameen Phone, that are stakeholder-focused and make CSR a part of everyday practice.
   For example, Pictet et Cie, which was founded in 1805, has a focus on sustainable development and encourages the maximum investment in sustainable areas for a given risk. The bank manages a Water fund, which was launched in 2000, and has become the world’s largest of its kind, with over €4 billion in assets; and a Clean Energy fund. The company has also establishe the Prix Pictet—the world’s first international prize dedicated to photography and sustainability—mandated to encourage the use and power of photography to communicate vital messages to a global audience. Pictet et Cie understands that business is not somehow separate from the world, but is very much part of it and must demonstrate a broad commitment to stakeholders and to society at large.
   Hewlett-Packard (HP) also exemplifies this in the way it works with other companies, governments and NGOs to improve the health, education and infrastructure in developing markets, because its long-term growth depends on new consumers. Anholt writes of HP and others, that ‘they (big companies) need consumers who are wealthy enough to buy their products, have enough free time to enjoy them, are educated enough to consume advertising messages and evaluate products and brands, and live in countries where there is the liberty to make money and spend it.’12

Long-term thinking
Key to the cited examples is the prevalence of long-term thinking, which runs counter to the sometimes short-term view of shareholders. Acting conscientiously means rejecting expediency for principle, temporary advantage for long-term gain. Grameen Phone didn’t look a good business prospect in the late 1990s in a country suffering from high levels of corruption, political uncertainty and poor infrastructure. But new distribution methods were established, low-cost pricing plans introduced and innovative and socially valuable services, such as HealthLine and Community Information Centres, established. Today, Grameen Phone has 23 million subscribers (February 2010) and is the most desired company to work for in Bangladesh.
   At Anglo-Dutch fast moving consumer goods company, Unilever, reducing environmental impacts while improving performance is the core vision and it means taking a longer-term view and tackling short-termism head on. In 2009, CEO, Paul Polman, in an attempt to move the focus away from short-term returns, stopped providing earnings guidance to investors. Seeing his mandate as more concerned with long-term success, he also railed against hedge funds, arguing, ‘they are not people who are there in the long-term interests of the company.’
   One implication of shareholder short-termism might be that it is easier for privately owned companies to act conscientiously. While Freeman et al13 argue for the mutual interest of different stakeholders, the power of shareholders in publicly quoted companies whose primary motivation is in above average returns can run into conflict with other stakeholders. In privately owned companies such as Pictet et Cie, Max Havelaar, Stormberg and also US outdoor brand, Patagonia, it is the long-term shared vision of owners and managers that drives decision-making.

Keeping promises
There has been a shift in emphasis in brand-building, from making promises to keeping them;14 from communication to people. This represents a turning away from traditional advertising and a focus on direct interaction. Indeed, some organizations are moving branding entirely away from communications and towards connecting strategy, culture and a wider stakeholder involvement. They recognize that branding is a process that is too important to be left just to the marketing or communications department. These organizations have understood that brand building is a participative process involving the whole organization and is the responsibility of all employees.15
   This suggests the importance of widespread employee engagement with the organization’s brand ideology—the set of ideas that define what the organization is, how it does things and what its aspirations are. The better individuals identify and internalize the ideology, the greater the likelihood of its delivery in the experiences that connect the organization and its stakeholders.
   As an example of this consider the software company, Mozilla. This is example of an organization that lives up to its stated mission of promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web. It is a non-profit organization that grew out of Netscape and is involved in building communities of people that both help create and use their products such as the web browser, Firefox, an email client, Thunderbird, and a global community of innovators, Drumbeat. Mozilla employs a core group of people (around 300) that develop software, manage process and market the products, but since the start of the company, much of the development of products has been due to the enthusiasm and involvement of customers who have become volunteers.
   In the early days of Mozilla, when it was up against a very dominant competitor in the form of Microsoft, there weren’t enough resources internally. As many software developers identified with the ideology of keeping the web open and accessible to all, they gave up their spare time to develop products they themselves would like to use. It was also an opportunity to work with smart people and solve difficult problems. Of course, Mozilla could have closed their doors to these would-be helpers, but it would have shown up that the principle of openness was just a veneer. Asa Dotzler of Mozilla says, ‘by 2004, the majority of the code had been written by Netscape employees, but there were many hundreds of volunteers who played a substantial role in writing code including important features. For instance the first implementation of tabbed browsing was a volunteer written code. Our first implementation of pop-up blocking and session restore when you crash, and lots of other key features were developed by volunteers.’
   By 2010, more than 12,000 free community-generated add-ons had been implemented. Mozilla has encouraged outsiders to help evolve the project. The idea of improving the internet experience for people everywhere led to one volunteer choosing to pioneer disability access because he felt passionately about it, while volunteers around the world seized on the opportunity to preserve the integrity of their languages, by translating content. When Mozilla launches a new version of Firefox, it is delivered in 75-plus languages simultaneously (2010). As long as the initiatives align with the Mozilla ideology, the organization chooses to make it easier for people to do what they wanted with the brand. A similar philosophy has also been adopted for marketing the Mozilla brand whereby a community of marketing professionals and enthusiast consumers helped to construct and implement a marketing campaign, even to the extent of donating money to run a launch campaign for Firefox.

Challenges to the concept
The concept of conscientious brands and the blocks on which it is built can be challenged from different angles. First, the stakeholder perspective has been challenged by Frooman16 in particular for being too company-centric. While he recognizes the impact of Freeman’s 1984 book, he also judges that in his ‘hub-and-spoke conceptualization, relationships are dyadic, independent of one another, viewed largely from the firm’s vantage point, and defined in terms of actor attributes.’
   Certainly traditional models of organization-stakeholder interaction have emphasized the organization as doing things to, and communicating at, stakeholders. In a more networked world where interactions are fluid and organizations are more porous and transparent, it has become clear that the connections between stakeholders has become more complex and the locus of control has shifted away from the organization. This has become evident during uprisings in North Africa and riots in the UK (2011) as brands such as Facebook, Blackberry, Vodafone and Twitter have been used to facilitate civil unrest. As a consequence, these brands have been criticized by governments. Yet the point should be made here that it is citizens who are defining how these brands are used (whether it be for good or for bad) in ways that were never conceived of by the brand owners.
   Alternatively, Martin17 (2010) is critical of much management thinking because it lacks a sufficient customer orientation. He describes the stages of modern capitalism, from Berle and Means’ The Modern Corporation and Private Property,18 which signified the emergence of managerial capitalism to Jensen and Meckling’s Theory of the Firm,19 which signified a shift to shareholder capitalism. Jensen and Meckling’s emphasis on maximizing shareholder value has since become a standard of modern management and argues quite explicitly for the pre-eminence of the shareholder. Martin’s critique is that the focus on shareholders hasn’t done anything for shareholder returns: ‘there’s no sign that shareholders benefited more when their interests were put first and foremost.’ Shareholder capitalism has also made organizations dysfunctional, in that it also downplays the interdependence of their audiences. As several studies have shown, involved and engaged employees are important contributors to customer satisfaction which in turn leads to enhanced performance.20 Similarly, having a positive reputation among influential people and organizations helps a business to achieve its broader goals. Where we might diverge from Martin is in his solution to shareholder capitalism. His argument is that the new orientation should be customer capitalism and he cites two key examples of organizations who have exemplary long-term performance and live up to their rhetoric: Johnson & Johnson and P&G. They are interesting choices and they certainly give prominence in their corporate statements to consumers, but the important thing is that they stress the intertwining of stakeholders. Johnson & Johnson’s credo is both long-lived and well known and connects doctors, nurses, patients, parents, children, communities and stockholders. P&G’s Principles state: ‘We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers. As a result consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders and the communities in which we live and work to prosper.’

A new approach
’Corporate brands are hugely influential on society and can either be part of the problem in fuelling excessive and high-impact consumption or part of the solution in driving consumers towards sustainable living.’
—Dax Lovegrove, Head of Business & Industry Relations, WWF UK

The central problem for the concept of conscientious brands is that one of the requirements for the organization is encouraging consumption, while a conscientious brand should be aiming to limit or shift consumption to ensure it is sustainable. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek observes, you only have freedom to the extent that you make the right choices, which means: ‘you are free to do anything, as long as it involves shopping.’21
   Yet, there are some signs of resistance to the Zizek view in the emergence of the idea of voluntary simplicity. ‘Voluntary simplifiers’ describes a category of people who have made the conscious decision to reduce their consumption levels and find meaning through reducing their spend on products and services and spending more time on activities that generate meaning for them. This group is anti-consumerist and ideologically motivated.22 The size of this audience is difficult to estimate, but it is suggested that in the US there are some 60 million people who fit into the category.23 These are still consuming individuals, but they are, in their eyes at least, consuming responsibly within self-defined boundaries. Kozinets has argued persuasively in his analysis of the Burning Man Festival that it is impossible to escape the market24—except temporarily. Consumerism is all pervasive. Yet the emergence of voluntary simplifiers demonstrates that the ‘less is more’ mantra has a significant number of adherents.

Branding is changing. It is moving away from a focus on products and consumers to a services-dominant logic that weighs up and tries to balance the needs to all stakeholders in an increasingly transparent and fluid dialogue. What’s important for marketers and brand owners is to see this change not as a threat but as an enormous opportunity for brands to make a positive difference to the world. Brands can respond to the stated desire of consumers and citizens to live responsibly (even if there is a gap between stated intent and actions)25 by using the tools of branding to change people’s behaviour so that it becomes more sustainable. This extends the role of brand owners beyond simply marketing products to helping people become more ethical. As Devinney, Auger and Eckhardt26 argue, ethically oriented consumption requires consumers to become knowledgeable participants so that they can become more socially conscious in their purchasing and consumption. This will require organizations to move beyond their tendency to short-termism and their overt orientation on shareholder returns. Instead there will be a requirement to focus on the real needs of people and to engage with them in a services-dominant approach that recognizes the importance of participation and dialogue.

   1. S. L. Vargo and R. F. Lusch: ‘Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing’, Journal of Marketing, vol. 68, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-17.
   2. Ibid., at p. 12.
   3. Thirty-four countries that are members of the forum that is committed to democracy and the market economy.
   4. D. Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Penguin 1969.
   5. R. Rorty: ‘Is Philosophy Relevant to Applied Ethics?’ Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, 2006, pp. 369-380.
   6. N. Ind (ed.): Beyond Branding: How the New Values of Transparency and Integrity Are Changing the World of Brands. London: Kogan Page 2003.
   7. R. E. Freeman: Strategic Management: a Stakeholder Approach. Boston: Pitman 1984.
   8. R. E. Freeman, J. S. Harrison and A. C. Wick: Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation and Success. New Haven: Yale University Press 2007.
   9. Ibid., at p. 6.
   10. A. M. Sjovall and A. C. Talk: ‘From Actions to Impressions: Cognitive Attribution Theory and the Formation of Corporate Reputation’, Corporate Reputation Review, vol. 7, no. 3, 2004, pp. 269-81.
   11. L. E. Olsen and A. Peretz: ‘Conscientious Brand Criteria: a Framework and a Case Example from the Clothing Industry’, Journal of Brand Management vol. 18, no. 9, 2011, pp. 639-49.
   12. S. Anholt: Brand New Justice: the Upside of Global Branding. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann 2003, at p. 160.
   13. R. E. Freeman, J. S. Harrison and A. C. Wick, op. cit.
   14. R. J. Brodie, M. S. Glyn, and V. Little: ‘The service brand and the service-dominant logic: missing fundamental premise or theneed for stronger theory?’ Marketing Theory, vol. 6, no. 3, 2009, pp. 363-79.
   15. N. Ind and M. Schultz: ‘Brand Building, Beyond Marketing’, Strategy & Business, July 2010.
   16. J. Frooman: ‘Stakeholder Influence Strategies’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1999, pp. 191-205.
   17. R. Martin: ‘The Age of Customer Capitalism’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 88, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 58-65.
   18. A. Berle and G. Means: The Modern Corporation and Private Property. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers 1932.
   19. M. Jensen and W. Meckling: ‘Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behaviour, Agency Costs, and Ownership Structure’, Journal of Financial Economics, vol. 3, no. 4, 1976, pp. 305-60.
   20. A. Rucci, S. Kirn and R. Quinn: ‘The Employee-Customer-Profits Chain at Sears’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 76, no. 1, 1998, pp. 82-97; M. G. Patterson, M. A. West, R. Lawthom and S. Nickell: Impact of People Management Practices on Business Performance. London: the Institute of Personnel and Development 1997; D. Maister: Practice What You Preach: What Managers Must Do to Create a High Performance Culture. New York: Free Press 2001.
   21. S. Böhm and C. de Cock: ‘Liberalist Fantasies: Zizek and the Impossibility of the Open Society’, Organization, vol. 14, no. 6, 2007, pp. 815-36; S. Zizek: Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books 2008.
   22. F. M. Belz and K. Peattie: Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons 2009; C. J. Oates, S. McDonald, P. Alevizou, K. Hwang and W. Young: ‘Marketing Sustainability: Use of Information Sources and Degrees of Voluntary Simplicity’, Journal of Marketing Communication, vol. 14, no. 5, 2008, pp. 351-65.
   23. J. A. Sandlin, and C. S. Walther: ‘Complicated Simplicity: Moral Identity Formation and Social Movement Learning in the Voluntary Simplicity Movement’, Adult Education Quarterly, vol. 59, 2009, pp. 298-317.
   24. R. V. Kozinets: ‘Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man’, The Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 29, no. 1, 2002, pp. 20-38.
   25. Young et al. notes an estimated 30 per cent of consumers indicate concern about environmental issues but only around 5 per cent translate this concern into action. W. Young, K. Hwang, S. McDonald and C. J. Oates: ‘Sustainable Consumption: Green Consumer Behaviour When Purchasing Products’, Sustainable Development Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 2010, pp. 20-31.
   26. T. Devinney, P. Auger and G. M. Eckhardt: ‘Values vs. Value’, Strategy & Business, no. 62, spring 2011.

Nicholas IndConscientious brands

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