Adam Hanft, founder of the consumer brand consultancy Hanft Ulimited, writes that 'post-Hurricane Katrina, Americans aren't questioning if companies should step forward and help - we're waiting for them to do so--to be the good neighbor on an unprecedented scale. see
"If truth were told, encouraged by the media, we've established an informal generosity contest."
And the clear winner, he notes, was the image-battered Wal-Mart Stores
Wal-Mart - with its huge logistics network running efficiently for years -- not only immediately donated more than $20 million to the victims of Hurricana Katrina, but also mounted a nation-sized relief effort of its own, including opening emergency Wal-Marts at key locations.
However, he also noted that companies in every sector were stepping forward in an outpouring of corporate generosity that exceeded $100 million and probably surpassed all the donated totals reached for both 9/11 and the Asian tsunami.
"And there hasn't been a word of criticism, accusing corporate America of trading on tragedy to advance its own interests. Nor has there been talk of suspending advertising during this period, as there was after 9/ll."
Social responsibility has moved from the fringes of a brand's core values into the nucleus of perception. This hasn't happened overnight. Sept. 11 crystallized a phenomenon we've seen growing for a number of years.
It wasn't long ago that critics derided corporate giving as a fiscally irresponsible gesture, a squandering of shareholder assets.
Today, how a brand acts is equally important--if not more so--than what it makes. From Whole Food Market's
support of small, organic farmers, to Avon cosmetics's
strong identification with breast cancer, a company's social policy is no longer a nicety to placate fringe groups but, instead, is central to branding strategy.
He writes that 'as products become commodities, companies look for other ways to differentiate their brands. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, but today we can say that the envelope is the essence. A brand is more than the sum of its ingredients. Its self-presentation is its greatest consumer value, whether we're looking at the packaging of aesthetics, or the strategic communication of a moral compass.
"Starbucks understands this. In a recent advertisement, it talked about the "goodness" in your expensive cup of coffee, extending the word to a world beyond: "access to credit for farmers" and "idealism and community and sustainability."
He notes that 'we can't look at this new ascendancy of the corporation outside of the decline in confidence in other institutions, from government to the church."
He notes that 'years of politicians' running against big government have eroded belief ... that government can accomplish anything at all. see
In fact, the Pew Research Center found that 54% of Americans agree that, "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."
He points out that 'the efforts by corporations in the wake of the New Orleans tragedy appeared organized and responsive -- 'in contrast to the bumbling on every level of government.'
Reports of Wal-Mart's ability to get tanker trucks filled with the water to the scene, only to have the authorities turn them away, reinforced the public's perception of the private sector's superior execution and logistic skills.
And, he concludes that 'this was a rare moment.'
Since the 1940s, when American business launched a charm offensive to maintain the positive image it had engendered during World War II and avoid a return to the popular business-bashing that had characterized the Depression of the previous decade, companies have been striving to achieve the status of a "good neighbor."
Roland Marchand wrote in Creating the Corporate Soul
, "few metaphors better suited the giant corporation in its mature 1940s bid for greater legitimacy." Marchand also cited Bruce Barton, who attempted to soften the corporate image of U.S. Steel by positioning it as a good neighbor.
"Of all the possible compliments that can be offered to a person in American society," Barton noted, "...this was one of the simplest, and yet one of the most profound." see
"With Katrina, the corporation transcended government as a stable, reliable source of trust. I'd venture to say that most people would rather have had Wal-Mart and FedEx running the show than Michael Brown and FEMA," he writes. see
This isn't to suggest that FEMA be privatized, but it does indicate a "trust shift" that is probably unprecedented, given the anti-corporate seam in American life that goes back to President Teddy Roosevelt and the trustbusters.
What happens next? he asks: "will the private sector remain in a philanthropic arms race every time disaster strikes, or will it seize on this as an opportunity to make this an even more systemic corporate commitment?
"If the intense generosity and can-do spirit of American business extends beyond this event and addresses itself to some of the deeper problems, including the racial divide, that the hurricane ripped open for national viewing, then a profound change is in the offing.
Corporation poised to fill leadership void...
I believe we are at a threshold. The corporation seems poised to fill a leadership void.
That social reformulation that will elevate brands into an even greater role of authority and responsibility, a role for which many might not be fully ready.
At the same time, Wall Street will need new metrics to evaluate what has, until now, been a loosey-goosey, "feel good" factor.
"Among other changes to the United States' landscape wrought by Katrina, this may prove to be one of the most permanent." he concluded. see