Corporations' Duty Is Transparency, not Charity

There's No Morality Inherent in Corporate Functions

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I'd like to challenge conventional wisdom and suggest that corporations are not supposed to be "good citizens." CMOs do themselves a disservice by letting their organizations claim otherwise.

In case you haven't noticed, capitalism is a game in which the score is kept by how effectively you deny your competitors every sales dollar. The opposite of winning in business isn't parity; it's losing, followed shortly thereafter by unemployment.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin runs Baskin Associates, a global brand consultancy, and blogs at Dim Bulb.
There's no morality inherent in corporate functions. That's why we have laws, regulations and framed, inspirational posters. In spite of mission statements that can soar to the stars, the reality of capitalism keeps us focused on driving our competitors into the ground. It's the creatively destructive game that gave civilization indoor plumbing, Wii consoles and Viagra at the expense of the outhouse industry, Microsoft and bridge clubs.

So where in the game rules does it say that companies have to be "responsible" for anything other than profits?

For instance, imagine that your consumers care about global warming. But there's nothing in the rulebook that says you can't dump into the sky all that murky dreck from whatever it is you manufacture. Worse, it's how you stay price-competitive, and there's no better way to get rid of the gunk anyway. So you sponsor some "green" marketing initiative. Ditto for any other tangible realities of business that are difficult or impossible to change but of which consumers don't approve or which they don't understand. In this way, corporate citizenship is the psychic-offset business.

But if there's no real, reliable business reason to do something "responsible," to whom (or what) are you being responsible?

We all too readily answer "the brand" as some idealized stand-in for the consumers' souls. They might not pay extra, more or more reliably for corporate citizenship, but we can convince ourselves that the offsets have some other intangible existence that is so important, it defies measure.

In case you haven't noticed, consumers keep score. That's why at least one recent study found that most people don't believe green marketing, and it's all but an established fact that customer trust in corporations is at an all-time low. They don't want charity or better marketing. They want the truth.

Maybe the opportunity isn't to gloss over or distract but rather to communicate and make transparent the real activities and trade-offs within our businesses. Let customers know what they're buying and why. Make the cases for what we do and figure out how to tell them what's involved. It might be lots harder than hiring an agency to avoid it, but they're going to find out via the internet anyway.

Isn't transparency the real corporate responsibility?

Questions to ask about corporate responsibility

TRADE-OFF: Could you change a business practice instead?

PURPOSE: If your consumers really care, will they pay for it?

DISSONANCE: Will your marketing conflict with what you do?

RELEVANCE: What are you actually doing for your consumers?
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