We need brands to step up and grow a real conscience

When moral standards are set adrift by those in power, should corporations and their brands fill the vacuum?

Never talk about politics or religion at the dinner table, so the saying goes. 

Most polite, well-mannered brands have tended to eschew the same, either anxious they may cause offence, or simply deeming the topics irrelevant to their category or cause.

And yet, those same brands increasingly obsess over "working at the pace of culture", ‘having cultural relevance’, even "driving culture" (Is there a brand brief written over the past decade that didn’t include a reference to culture? Discuss).

So what happens when politics and culture start bleeding and blending together in one hot, sticky mess?

In August, when Donald Trump drew an equivalence between the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville and the activists who came to oppose them – mere moments after he had thrown his country’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement in the drink and banned transgender troops from serving in the US military - commentators around the world publically denounced the moral vacuum he created. For the first time in living memory, here is a US president "rejecting the very concept of moral leadership." 

When chief executives of several corporations then took to Twitter and resigned in protest from Trump’s various business advisory panels, their actions were seen as a public statement of moral dissent.

As citizens and as corporations, it’s inarguable that we should hold the leaders of our countries accountable for more than the economy and the operational mechanics of government. But should those chief executive go further and assert corporate moral agency through the day-to-day actions of their businesses and brands? And, to paraphrase Richard Huntington, should a brand take a position, not just have a positioning?

The concept of corporate moral agency – as distinct from corporate social responsibility or purpose – is not new. The term first appears in 1999 in a piece written in the Journal of Business Ethics and then reappears in 2013 via Jon Alexander, the founder the New Citizenship Project. As Alexander puts it, corporate moral agency differs from CSR in one key respect: responsibility is a mechanistic, cause-and-effect concept that is hard to pin down, whereas morality is ‘systemic... an opportunity to act for the positive". The difference between the two is perhaps best illustrated by the philosopher, Dale Jamieson, talking about climate change: "Today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible for it."

Five years on, a whole new meaning of the word ‘woke’ has made it into mainstream parlance and, as Joe Biden put it recently, "if it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: we are living through a battle for the soul of this nation". He was talking about the US, but I’m struggling to think of many countries where that sentiment doesn’t apply right now. In that context, the idea of pure "business as usual" behaviour from brands – the kind that blithely ignores the tectonic cultural shifts happening in people’s lives right now – risks appearing disingenuous and out of touch.

This is complex, nuanced territory to navigate and not for the fainthearted. Some brands, well-meaning or not, too often appear to engage in not much more than a PR exercise, jump on a bandwagon, or co-opt the imagery of a protest movement, all to universal derision.

But when a brand uses its resources to take an authentic, moral stance on something that matters both to that brand and its users, it creates an undeniable, positive impact. It may be a long-term, proactive initiative (think Patagonia giving 100% of its sales on Black Friday to grassroot organisations defending the climate) or short-term and reactive (think Tiki Torches, who swiftly disassociated themselves from the alt-right, when they used Tiki products in Charlottesville). 

Considering our corporate moral agency does not mean a brand must always fight a cause by taking the moral high ground, banging a drum. Loudly voicing how worthy we are, especially when a brand is late to the party on a cultural shift, may be the fastest way to send people to sleep. I would wager instead that a wholesale commitment not to perpetrate gender or racial stereotypes in your marketing, for example, is likely to have a greater impact in the long run than a one-off ad announcing your brand’s generic support of gender or racial equality.

It may feel less immediate or newsworthy, but I promise you it will be worth it.

I will leave the last word to John Amaechi, who wrote in August:

"Match your fervent rhetoric and clever use of gifs online with a consistent thread of small, but substantive everyday deeds that illustrate your true principles in a way that truly supports the past and current heros fighting on our behalf."

Amen to that.

With thanks to Caroline Collinson-Jones, strategy director at Sunshine, who first introduced me to the idea of corporate moral agency.

Mel Exon is group chief executive at The Sunshine Company

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