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.

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  • gbacoder

    We the public must do our part and shame these poorly performing companies. Make more people know what they are up to while trying to tell us they are our friend. As many  are shareholder owned  their primary goal is money. They like us to think they are good because they make money. 

  • gbacoder

    And then here in the UK we get brands, mostly American it must be said, getting us annoyed because they have exploited tax loop holes that while technically legal, are not meant for companies like theirs. Apple, Starbucks, amazon, google - all have paid virtually no corporation tax. These are companies that like to promote a cool brand / good image. Considering that The USA sued the hell out of BP, this just does not seem fair that they can get away without paying many billions over the years. 

  • gbacoder

    If I was a good marketing person - I would not work for pepsi - that is for sure.

  • gbacoder

    Pepsi though really NEEDS to make us think it is good. With so many reports out recently about how the sugar drinks are linked to diabetes and the sweetener ones are linked to cancer. We have even had experiments where rats who drank nothing but Pepsi nearly all go tumours and the control rats (on water) got none. The cynic in me says they are just out to build up a good image before all of the less gets more into the public eye. 

  • Kestrel Jenkins

    Definitely agree that this is the future. However, it isn't going to happen unless those inspiring, smaller do good brands are able to join forces and economically become competition for the larger corporations and pressure them to actually change their supply chains.

  • September Kuromi

    I do agree that you can be too big to be good.  Unions, government, Walmart, even big cities  reach a critical mass where the concentration of decision making at the top means that the interests of the masses are no longer represented.  It is a conundrum that everyone wants to see an organization succeed, but then hate them when they become too successful. 

  • Tim Johnson

    Your premise is flawed. Making money is, in itself, doing good. Large public companies fuel the wealth that individuals of all social classes work to accumulate in pensions, IRAs, 401(k) plans and other investments. Their responsibilities are to the people who own them. If a company's behavior sends investors running, they lose. If its executives engage in illegal acts, they should be punished. But to define "doing good" by following certain popular social trends which may not have any direct correlation to profit is an unfair measure of whether a company is benefiting society.

  • gbacoder

    Problem is often the system in place, that rewards CEOs and fund managers etc. for their performance over the last year. This leads to many risks that make short term profits. They don't care so much for what you call "responsibilties", as long terms profits over decades are of little to no interest to them. It's the way the system is set up that is wrong. This is what led to the collapse of banks for example. And the creation of companies that fool the public into thinking they are good and on their side. We the public must wise up and inform people of what they are up to. 

  • David Bradley

    I agree and disagree with you to a certain extent. I think the real argument is in the definitions of "rich" and "doing good". 

    I disagree with your assertion that "making money is, in itself, doing good". "Making money" is a neutral act, a tool to be used to perform a function. Kind of like sitting down, you aren't doing anything good, but you aren't doing anything bad either. The judgement has to come from what you are doing while you are sitting, or what are you doing once you have "made the money". 

    And I agree that a companies responsibility is to their investors. There is no doubt that they should get a return on their investment, but what is the investors responsibility once they have received the return? In other words, once they are sitting, what are they doing?

  • N/A Inc.

    Agreed, to a certain degree. Acquiring wealth for the sake of getting richer is not inherently good. A financially sustainable company that is guided by strict principles of environmental respect and human rights is a HUGE benefit to society. 

    It's not about popular social trends. It's about standing for something greater than appeasing the dollar signs in investor's eyes. It's about recognizing that we all have a responsibility, whether individually or collectively to steer the world in a better direction. And for-profit enterprise should not be exempt from this. They can lead it. 

  • Stombell

    I'm reminded of a conversation Ralph Nader says that ocurred between himself and the then-president of Coca Cola, as recorded in "Futures" by Ted Peters (1978). In it, Mr. Nader asked the president if they could put vitamins in Coke since it had no nourishing value. That way, the abilities of a huge company could be leveraged to fight against world hunger. The Coke executive said that would not be possible, even with a guarantee that the taste of Coke would be unaffected. Why? Because the company had a single purpose which was to earn more money by seeling a "refreshing" drink. Responsibility to stakeholders won out over responsibility to the greater good.

  • N/A Inc.

    Great example of a corporation with the potential to address a social issue, but lacking the gumption to tackle it. The bravest brands of the future won't shy away from social cause.