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Can Brands Be Too Big To Do Good?

Is it possible for the world’s largest companies to incorporate sustainability and responsible business into their DNA? Or is a large corporation inherently more concerned with profit than people?

In kindergarten we’re all taught to play fair. It’s the golden rule, the ethic of reciprocity: treat others as you would like to be treated. Yet when it comes to the business world, what becomes of this golden rule? The individual rule of "being good to one another" does not have an equivalent proverb when we consider larger human systems, especially in regards to the corporate world.

Still, being viewed as "good" is golden. It’s a desirable and elusive status that triggers businesses to invest large amounts of marketing dollars. Yet nobody seems to have successfully branded themselves as a truly good multinational corporation. In which big business do you have 100% faith in long-term social and environmental sustainability commitments?

I’ve been quick to sing the praises of smaller businesses that have built "good" into their brand architecture. But it is significantly easier for small to mid-size businesses to understand their social and environmental impacts. Monitoring down-the-line suppliers is, in theory, a more manageable task. The greater question is about the big guys. Are the biggest brands in the world too big to be good?

We have yet to see a global brand achieve a significant amount of public trust. At the moment, for example, there are no Fortune 500 companies certified as B Corporations. Most corporate leaders are daunted, if not completely immobilized by the task of social and environmental sustainability. But the most progressive brands are still taking bold action.

Here are three major brands experimenting with good:

Google has set the intention to be good, but is it? The world’s number one search engine has yet to win our unquestioning trust, but despite the naysayers, Google is one of the most recognized and lucrative brands on the planet. Carbon neutral since 2007 and consistently high on CSR rankings (PDF), the data-harvesters are guided by 10 principal tenets, one of the most poignant of which reads: "You can make money without doing evil." And when it comes to proactive social change the company has developed Google.org, which is "the philanthropic arm of Google." The efforts at Google.org include reuniting people after natural disasters, monitoring disease outbreaks, and enabling access to clean water. Google will be the true leader of "good" when they treat doing good not simply as an "arm," but as the heart of their business. Google’s new motto should read: "You can make money without doing evil, and even do good."

General Electric is determined to solve the world’s biggest problems by finding solutions in energy, health, home, transportation, and finance. Its big-picture approach to corporate citizenship is "to make money, make it ethically, and make a difference." Like Google.org, GE has a philanthropic wing—GE Foundation—that provides financial support for education, health, and disaster relief. Where I give GE most credit, however, is with the Ecomagination project. It’s their commitment to innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth. Rather than the ghettoization of philanthropy, Ecomagination is exploring how environmental sustainability and profit can go hand in hand. That’s the future of doing good.

Pepsi has toyed with being good. The Pepsi Refresh Project was a 2010 initiative to fund community-led projects through $20 million in grants. Two years ago I might have been singing the praises of the corporation for the massively successful campaign. But instead of creating a sustainable model for doing good, one is left with the feeling that the campaign might have fallen into a category of flashy "one-offs." The company’s current marketing communication revolves around the phrase "Live for now," and only serves to reunite the brand with a vapid passivity. So is it the end of Refresh? If not, how could it become a focal part of the brand? Will we see Refresh 2.0? And how will we know if Refresh has been truly successful without giving it time to mature?

What we’re increasingly witnessing is the desire of major brands to support causes, and to communicate a position of not just doing well, but also doing good. Most brands, however, are still using the traditional methods of philanthropic foundations and cause marketing. The majority are still floundering with how to not only reconcile purpose and profit, but how to embrace purpose as a profit-generating mechanism that goes beyond the product and service rigamarole. Which leads us back to the important question at hand: Are the big brands too big to be good? No. Absolutely not.

Big corporations not only can be good, but there is no other option if we want to collectively see a tomorrow. We need to move beyond the illusion of infinite growth to understanding that every single business hinges upon a planet being able to produce raw materials and a population being physically and psychologically healthy enough to work and consume. It really is that simple.

The benefit of being one of the biggest brands of the world is that you often get to define the rules of the game. The big guys are in a position to tell their suppliers what they want, and how they want it. Big business has the opportunity to lead the field. And if we are to determine a golden rule for the world’s leading brands, it should read like this:

"Treat the marketplace as if it were the single greatest platform to profit and improve the world."

If a business is able to live by this rule, they will win dollars and win the hearts and minds of a loyal world.