"A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person."
-- Jeff Bezos
If you think about it, Nike, or Disney, or the company where you work are no more than a stack of papers filed by a lawyer somewhere. They are legal entities created specifically so that their activities are considered separate from those of the people who formed them (for liability, tax and other reasons.)
But a stack of legal papers can't make decisions, or have a personality, or do anything but sit there. And we've established that the corporation is distinct from the people who created it or who run it; they can leave the company at any time. The only thing that really holds a corporation together is its shareholders -- and they're here today and gone tomorrow as well.
So really, there's no there there -- is there?
Well, yes and no.
Brands Create Continuity
You see, whenever a shareholder sells his or her stock in a company, the buyer has certain expectations of continuity. And the people the shareholders entrust to run the company are expected to maintain (and increase) the company's value by meeting these expectations -- not only in terms of sheer dollars and cents, but by having a predictable business model that shareholders can count on for the long term.
And that's where branding comes in. Branding communicates the continuity of a company's business model -- to shareholders, to customers, to employees. It says, "This is the kind of person we are -- if we were actually a person."
So Disney is family-oriented, fun, magical. Nike is outdoorsy, rugged, adventurous. And so on and so on. To the extent a company's products, advertising and other projections of itself support these traits, the brand has continuity -- which over time, can become a company's most valuable asset.
In this sense, it is like your reputation or mine.
Corporations as Wannabe Humans
But there's a point at which branding is not the same as reputation. At a certain point, we must face the fact that while people actually are human, corporations are merely wannabes. This has all sorts of implications for PR -- and specifically, for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.
I help companies with their brands for a living. I think one reason I'm good at it is that I don't blow sunshine up people's behinds. So here's the deal:
Corporations are not human. And that's a good thing, because if they were human, they would be sociopaths. This isn't a cheap shot. A sociopath is a person who is interested only in their personal needs and desires. By definition, corporations are designed expressly to serve the interests of their shareholders -- and only those interests.
ROI of CSR
Yes, CSR programs can do good. The thing to keep in mind is, these programs only exist to the extent shareholders can be convinced that the spending will ultimately boost the bottom line -- like any other marketing expenditure. It's the equivalent of doing something good so someone will see you doing it.
People are smart enough to know when someone is doing good for the right reasons -- and they value these efforts far more than they value the efforts of those who do it for appearances' sake (like corporate brands).
So what does this mean in terms of dollars? Let's say you're a large corporation that spends $50 million annually on CSR. Now, let's say the public only values your spending about half as much as they do that of a grassroots organization whose motives are considered pure. Well, that means you're spending $50 million to buy $25 million worth of good will.
Maybe you're Exxon, and considering your reputation, this still sounds like a pretty good deal to you. Or maybe there are other places to better spend your money.
All of which is to say that a brand for a company is like a reputation for a person -- except when it's not. To keep your bearings, and hold on to your soul, in today's corporate world, it's important to know the difference.