Opinion: Brands are now judged on what they do, not say

Brands have never been more valuable nor more vulnerable. For more than a decade, we have been able to calculate their asset value, even if we haven't all been able to agree on the methodology. These assets, however, are more exposed than ever to public scrutiny.

We live in an age where 15-year-olds compare the buying ethics of fashion chains as a homework assignment and change their brand preferences accordingly.

Business news is everybody's news. Consumers take notice not only of product content and performance, but also labour exploitation, environmental issues and financial transparency. This is a world where a poorly managed oil spill can wipe more billions off a company's market capital than a decade of global advertising can build it. It's a world where food marketers have had to take radical action to protect their brands in the face of increasing consumer interest in nutrition and fair trade.

Examples this year have included Kraft's efforts to re-present Lunchables, the chocolate companies' initiatives to tackle child trafficking in the cocoa plantations and the repositioning and menu additions at McDonald's.

McDonald's clearly gets it. Here's how chief executive James Calapuno expressed it in the Financial Times on August 29: "We were the bad environmental icon, we were the bad animal rights icon. Today ... we'll be the leader on healthy lifestyles and nutrition ... because it's important to all our customers." I am not sure that it can make it stick but the company certainly see the inextricable link between brand and behaviour.

Brands are all about trust. And in the information age, consumers, trade buyers and investors have so much more evidence on which to base that trust.

Brands, like people, are judged not just on what they say, but also how they behave. Thanks to the internet and more investigative consumer affairs programmes on television, the gap between brand image and reality is closing fast. That's why corporate social responsibility (CSR) is such a hot issue and here to stay.

CSR is not just about the good work in which a brand invests to enhance its reputation, nor the fast action it takes to manage a crisis. It's about taking stock of all the behaviours that together tell people whether this is a brand with which they want to do business. Perhaps we should think of it as responsible brand management.

The Business for Social Responsibility organisation offers this as its simplest description of corporate social responsibility: 'What you do, how you do it and when and what you say'. That sounds a lot like brand management to me.

The prosperity of the brand is inextricably linked to the behaviour of the people behind it. That's why corporate social responsibility has to be a brand issue and not just a corporate affair. You can't manage a brand if you are not taking care of its personality and performance.

The good news is that CSR is becoming more system-ised, more objective and more easily measured. It's complicated by the plethora of codes, guidelines and data, but these are simply the new tools of brand management in the 21st century. Now is the time to learn how to use them.

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