The world of branding is awash with claims about social and environmental initiatives, but all too often such claims are not rooted in committed action. That requires conscience.
To investigate how managers are navigating the challenges brands face, we initiated a research project to find out how they saw the idea of conscience and what it might mean for their decision-making.
Can a brand even have a conscience?
As humans each of us has a conscience that guides us when we have to make difficult choices and gives us occasion to reflect when we do something we feel is wrong. But can a brand do this? Some of the managers we interviewed, think not. They argue that it is people who are morally responsible, and a non-human entity, such as a brand, cannot have a conscience.
However, most managers do think a brand can have a conscience, because a brand is seen to comprise of ‘a collective of humans,’ who have a common idea of what the brand stands for – including its position on social and environmental issues. The difficulty managers have though is describing what the brand conscience is. Instead they fall back on the proxy of the brand’s purpose (the raison d’ être) and principles or values (the core tenets that guide actions).
Where’s the value?
Managers acknowledge they are under significant pressure from employees, investors, business partners and to a certain extent, customers, to do the right thing and take a stance on social and environmental issues. The challenge is that such stances can easily be superficial – a means to burnish reputation rather than tackle fundamental systemic issues.
When conscience is to the fore and integrated into strategic choices, then there is a greater commitment to consistent action. Some of the companies we interviewed such as retailer, IKEA, enterprise software company, SAP, the Dutch Bed manufacturer Auping and the British telecoms business, Zen, really exemplify this – the last argued that the brand was ‘living proof that you can make a profit and you can do good business through focusing on what actually matters and doing the right thing.’
Bringing conscience to life
Driving change, especially when it comes to the application of conscience to social and environmental strategies, is seen as an important leadership role. But, there are degrees of commitment. Some leaders are at one end of the spectrum following the legal necessities, while others are leading the change.
In between are those leaders in transition. Those leading the change do see benefits, but they also recognise there are significant risks, if claims are not backed by hard evidence. Interestingly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in 2015, are there in leaders’ minds, whatever their degree of commitment to change. And for some the SDGs are integrated into business strategy. One manager of a major international retailer noted they are ‘Most influential on strategy...the UN SDGs are there in every presentation we reference and in every kind of action.’