The Ben and Jerry rampage

Sorry for not posting yesterday. There was a death in the family.

In both of the sessions I did in New York City, I could see a new trend in the works. I heard people talking about how important it was for corporations to “stand for something.”

There are a couple of variations on this theme, but mostly it comes down to a kind of “Ben and Jerry’s” argument that says corporations will win consumer loyalty when they show that they care about social issues and make this part of the corporate and brand message.

This is a bad idea for three reasons.

First, the corporation must speak to diverse consumers. Surely, it’s true that one person’s “social issue” is another’s “perfect nonsense.” Or, to put this another way, some people eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because the company stood for something. Others don’t eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for the same reason. They don’t like Ben and Jerry stand for.

Second, the corporation is now struggling to build better, more nimble brands. They are having to learn to be many things to many people. This new brand architecture will test our ability as marketers. The last thing we need to do is to have to work in a “feel good, do good” message.

Third, I have always assumed that there is a kind of church and state separation here. Corporations are supposed to work the “for profit” side of the equation, with the other side left to the NGOs and government. When the corporation ties profits to social projects they muddy the waters. For some this will provoke Brave New World anxieties. (And this will provoke a consumer down side, especially in this conspiracy minded age. For instance: “have you heard what the stars in the P&G logo actually stand for?”)

For others, and especially capital markets, it will raise fears that the pursuit of profit is being obscured by another agenda. I think investors are entitled to suppose that the corporation will pursue its (and their) best interest in a clear headed way. What the street does not want to hear is that a corporation decided not to pursue a profit opportunity because it was not consistent with their social agenda.

In sum, corporations, within the letter of the law, should do what they were designed to do: make shoes, soda, software, or high riises.

Let’s be clear. I am not saying that corporations should not do “good works.” My favorite exemplar here is Timberland’s which gives each of its employees a month of paid leave each year to do volunteer work somewhere in America or the world. Well done, Timberland’s. This is “all good.” What Timberland’s doesn’t do is to make this part of the marketing message. Good works are what they owe the work. They are not the way they build the brand.

Potentially, we are looking a devil and the deep blue sea scenario here. On the one side, some will damn the corporations who don’t have a social agenda. On other, others will damn for having one.

Corporations do stand for something. And this something is plenty complicated enough without making them moral actors. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s keep this simple.