Encouraging Companies to Do Good (and Make Money Too)

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Good deeds are no longer optional. This is the premise of Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, which asserts that people commit to companies that perform acts of good citizenship. Associate Editor Sam Del Rowe spoke with author Anne Bahr Thompson to learn more about the book and her brand citizenship model.

CRM magazine: What kind of research did you do for this book?

Anne Bahr Thompson: The concept of brand citizenship evolved from the grassroots up. It’s not a model I set out to create. In 2011, I was conducting research in the United States and the United Kingdom. We asked people about their hopes, fears, and concerns; the issues that were important to them; career choices; and which companies they thought would exhibit leadership, which were good or responsible corporate citizens, and which were bad or irresponsible corporate citizens.

People’s responses were far more worthy than I expected. They were concerned about big issues: paying mortgages, healthcare, school fees, and more. The companies they named as good corporate citizens, and the reasons they gave for choosing them, were even more surprising: They wanted businesses to step in and fix the problems government wasn’t addressing. 

How have consumers’ expectations regarding companies being good citizens changed? 

Real people define good corporate citizenship differently than experts and academics. For real people, good corporate citizenship spans what I call the ME-to-WE continuum. Because so many companies make promises they don’t keep, good corporate citizenship begins with doing what you say, delivering on promises, and cultivating trust, before spanning out to solve greater concerns about the environment, social issues, the economy, and more. 

Companies can no longer expect customers and employees to advocate for them if they don’t first advocate for the things that matter most to customers and employees. 

What are some examples of companies being good citizens? What has the response been to these acts of good citizenship?

There is not just one type of brand citizenship. Multiple approaches along the ME-to-WE continuum resonate with people. 

SunTrust, a large regional bank, is a great example of a brand that is building trust and solving ME problems. It reinforces its brand purpose, “to light the way to financial well-being,” through its free onUp program. [This program] teaches people to be good stewards of their money, no matter how modest their means. Importantly, the program is open to anyone, not just SunTrust customers.

At the other end of the spectrum is Lush Handmade Cosmetics. The company continually finds ways to connect its fans to sustainable products, fair trade, and philanthropic causes, and better the world.

These acts lead to greater brand loyalty, a stronger reputation, and ultimately increased profits.

The book proposes a five-step model. What do each of the steps entail?

The five steps of brand citizenship logically flow from one another:

Trust is the starting point for good brand citizenship, not the end game. First and foremost, people expect the brands they buy and the companies they work for to live up to their promises.

Step two is enrichment. People identify more with and are less price-sensitive toward companies that help them simplify their routines, make mundane tasks less dull, and enrich their lives. 

Step three is responsibility. It’s the pivot point between being a ME and a WE company. Most importantly, though, people will not give you credit for sustainability programs or fixing your supply chain if you do not treat employees well. 

Step four is about cultivating a sense of community and connecting and rallying customers and employees through shared values. 

Step five is contribution. Companies that actively create a more positive and life-enhancing future make customers, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders feel like they are contributing more through association.

So how do companies get there?

Doing good can no longer be a cost of doing business. It’s an essential investment in loyalty and reputation management. Brand citizenship is an ethos, not a check-the-box exercise. It’s a long-term journey. It takes courage to commit to benchmarking performance based on your social impact as much as your market share, cost management, and profit. You also have to be willing to accept that there are no definite business models for doing good. Every company has to learn the best way to do this based on its own larger purpose.

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