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The Social Purpose of Brands

From philanthropy activities to today’s sustainability agenda, companies worldwide have certainly come a long way. For centuries, a company’s basic social role was understood simply as providing jobs and paying taxes. More generous entrepreneurs added charity work to this mix. Some of them sought to generate greater social impact with philanthropic resources. In doing so, they created the foundations of corporate social investment, as companies transferred not just funds, but principles and management tools, in order to increase the social organizations’ efficiency.

The creation and expansion of the concept of corporate social responsibility followed, establishing ethical standards with the entire business chain, considering interests and making commitments to stakeholders, and not just shareholders.

In this context, the environmental impact of business activities began to be monitored due to the increasing awareness and evidence that human beings’ patterns of production and consumption, regardless of ideological point of view, endangered the very existence of life on Earth.

In order to reconcile financial results with the fight against environmental degradation and social inequity, the concept of the triple bottom line arose. Companies came to be evaluated for their environmental and social performance, as well as their economic performance. Since then, it is increasingly the case that the sustainability agenda has gradually been affecting all business models.

Other equally important transformations have occurred. The power of citizens grew considerably thanks to social, political and technological factors, calling into question the traditional pyramid of influence, where elites – brands, leaders, governors or any other entity at the top of hierarchies – could transmit enticing messages, even empty ones, to a monolithic, passive and voiceless public, determining behaviors and opinions. Activism, either individual or organized, has found digital media to be a powerful instrument of action and influence. It is no longer possible to simply rely only on unidirectional and commoditized communication channels.

The combination of all these movements affect and alter the processes of brand building, which has as its premise dialogue and the sharing of value. A brand cannot just be known, it must be recognized and admired in order mobilize and strengthen bonds with its stakeholders.

Communication planning in this new scenario begins with company behavior. The basis of this lies in the company’s purpose – its reason for being – and its values​​. These elements define the gravitational field of the brands that attract people through identification, keeping them in orbit through reason and emotion.

Brand attitudes solidify purpose and values in areas of interest and perception of these stakeholders. These brand manifestations include the approach and the ethics in relationships that it establishes, the causes it defends, the content and experiences it shares, the sponsorships and events it executes, and all the ways it communicates.

This compound of corporate behavior determines interaction with all stakeholders: employees, customers, clients, investors, suppliers, community and government. It gives substance to communication processes, which must also respect two other premises: relevance and transparency.

A brand becomes relevant to its stakeholders when it shares aspirations, opinions, styles and causes. The brand is strengthened and minimizes risks, when it is genuine, true, fair and proactive. There is not much room to hide in this networked and global society, where companies interact with actors inside and outside of their business chain.

The means by which brands transit their narratives also expands. During the era of massified logic, broadcasting of fictional or functionalist messages in conventional media reigned supreme. Today, every media can be considered strategic for establishing dialogues: blogs, social media, search engines, the companies’ own channels – all companies are also media companies now – and …conventional media.

Public Relations is the discipline that best responds to all this, because from its nature comes greater consideration for the views and interests of others. Its historical focus is the conversation, the sharing of value, established in complex and fragmented environments. In Brazil, its role was previously restricted largely to relationships with the press to generate free publicity.

Simple brand exposure either paid or unpaid, endorsed by quantitative metrics and parameters is no longer enough for a brand to last in the new market. Now, when the brand purpose is critical to the business, the company’s survival increasingly depends on strategic management of its relationship chain.


Yacoff Sarkovas
Published in the Special Annual Supplement of “Meio & Mensagem”, in December 2012.