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Branding: Words and Meanings

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I’ve been thinking about brands that are making a difference in our lives and society, and I used the term “worthwhile brand” to define them.

However, I don’t think that term sets the bar high enough; as one reader commented, there are plenty of brands that are “worth” my time and effort.

So why not just call it corporate responsibility? A widely quoted definition by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development states that “Corporate social responsibility is the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large.” There’s also a more easily quoted slogan, Doing Well by Doing Good. All of this sounds great and admirable… so why am I searching for a new term?

A few reasons. First, words carry a lot of underlying meanings and associations. When you think of the words responsibility and behave, what pops into your mind? Maybe I’m the odd one out here, but I think of my mother and house rules. I think about times when I was a young girl getting into trouble because I didn’t behave the way I should. I think of what I have to do vs. what I want to do. I think of chores. I think “not fun.” The term “corporate responsibility” implies that the people at corporate HQ — execs and board members — are responsible, taking the emphasis off the individual. And perhaps that’s why corporate responsibility has typically been encoded into rules, programs and accounting standards. Sometimes it’s delegated to HR to initiate charity or volunteer programs. Other times it’s used as a tactic for good PR (note Enron’s yearly “Corporate Responsibility Annual Report” and tobacco corporations’ social reports.) Rarely is it a mentality that’s embedded in the DNA of the culture.

Back to definitions: responsibility and behavior are things that you do. Character is something that you are. If you’re focused on actions, you create your to-do lists and check off the fact that you did your one good deed for the day. If you’re focused on character, then your identity and intentions naturally create win-win opportunities for everyone involved. It becomes fun and rewarding to give back and “do the right thing.” Corporate responsibility is the effect, not the cause.

Brand building focuses on character. If we’re interested in how companies can act for the good of employees, customers, communities and the world, then we must choose words that are motivational and aspirational… words that define character (cause) not behavior (effect). Initially I used the word worthwhile, but in hindsight I see that I was still focusing on the effect. Now I’m thinking along the lines of noble, upstanding, honorable, and integrity. These are aspirational character traits for a brand. When used as hiring criteria, these traits can create formidable brands that make measurably positive impacts on the world.

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Jennifer Rice is the founder of Mantra Brand Communication. She has extensive experience in brand/marketing strategy, market/customer research, integrated marketing communications and channel support.

Jennifer also writes theWhat’s Your Brand Mantra? blog which offers musings on branding, marketing and the ecology of business.

Branding: Words and Meanings
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