It wasn't so long ago that corporate titans walked the world, amassing huge fortunes with little input from anyone. Regulators held some sway, in that they could bust up monopolies, but ordinary folk hadn't a prayer of getting their voices heard. Nor would they expect to.
But that's changed. After a spate of US corporate scandals earlier this decade, companies have come under intense scrutiny from the media, regulators and shareholders, but even more so from consumers. Empowered by new technologies, consumers feel entitled to know exactly what's going on at corporate HQ.
Industrial titans, who would once have disdained direct contact with the "end user", are channelling ad budgets to corporate brand campaigns designed to curry consumers' favour. Reputation is everything. Getting on consumers' bad side is a risk companies are no longer willing to take. Hence the decision of Dow, Coca-Cola and SABMiller to appoint chief reputation officers to sit alongside senior managers.
So now we're seeing a shift to more proactive campaigns. "Your needs have changed. Your tastes have changed. And The Coca-Cola Company is changing right along with you," proclaims one such effort, which then goes on to make all sorts of undying declarations of fealty to consumers and steadfast commitments to their nutritional needs and various other concerns.
Some might dismiss this as nothing more than a new twist on PR. It's not. What we're seeing is a fundamental adjustment in the corporate mindset and the way society views the role of the corporate brand.
Companies understand that being a good corporate citizen is in their long-term interest. And consumers recognise the importance of their role as agitators or watchdogs. They spend more time with corporate brands than they used to, and the proactive want to know everything about the companies they keep.
It's interesting that at a time when consumers are alternately annoyed and bored by brand advertising, they can't hear enough about the companies behind the brands. They want to know about the provenance of the foods they're eating, about ethics throughout the supply chain, and about what companies are doing to make their businesses sustainable. Smart companies are now responding to this by disclosing details that would once have been kept under lock and key. Nike, for example, has broken new ground by disclosing the names and addresses of some 700 approved suppliers around the world.
Surviving in this new era of corporate branding needs leadership, vision and a broader view of whose opinions count. Businesses that thrive will be those that maximise corporate brand value by combining principles, opacity and profit.
- Andrew Bennett is the global chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide.