Brands in new world

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Our economy, our government, our families and our values as a free and open society are being tested. Some say the test is long overdue, that we have ignored everything left and right of our own self-important paths. There is truth to this. Who now can ignore the plight of Afghans, or anyone, anywhere that is at the mercy of a totalitarian regime? Who can ignore terrorism?

And what about globalization? Some think it's the root of all that is wrong with the world today. I'm not so sure they are right. An interconnected, interdependent and more open society, especially if it values human life and individual enlightenment, may be the way to get us out of the mess we're in.

Globalization is not new. It began when the first cave man left one valley for the next. It was only a matter of time before we crossed the oceans looking for something different, something better.

The spread of religion has been the most powerful form of globalization. Countless millions died or suffered in conflicts over religious ideologies. Maybe it's just me, but the spread of branded products and services around the world pales by comparison. Say what you want about the spread of Starbucks coffeehouses, but Starbucks is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If it doesn't provide value and respect its customers, it will fail. And it won't challenge your own personal God.

Can't slow globalization

Events of the 20th century-the rise of mass media, multinational corporations and the Internet-only accelerated globalization. Not only can we not stop globalization, it will be hard to even slow it down.

If we can't stop globalization, what can we do? We can find ways to make it a more positive influence on society. We can leverage the opportunities that exist within an interconnected society to improve the quality of life where it is needed most. We can tap the power of businesses, big and small, to help developing countries become more self-sufficient and improve the quality of life.

The readers of publications such as Advertising Age can have a profound effect on whether the globalization of business, media and culture is a positive force. Our government is not going to point the way. It is up to us. We are at a turning point in the evolution of society, where business, not just government, is shaping the character and image of our country and having a profound effect on the world itself. It's time the private sector honored an obligation that transcends profits. That obligation is to have a positive impact on society in the course of its business.

I suspect this will sound like so much ideological rubbish to some of you, particularly those that place bottom-line results above all else. But let me finish. Imagine if American businesses directed a small portion of their creativity, passion and unique skills toward improving the quality of life where it is needed most and, in doing so, demonstrated the values and benefits of a free and open society.

How would that work? Consider the following ideas for starters.

Textbooks via amazon

Imagine publishers and booksellers helping to get textbooks and other reading materials into the hands of teachers, women and children in Afghanistan and in other places where entire generations lack basic skills such as reading and writing. Imagine if Amazon or Barnes & Noble asked customers to help. Imagine how beverage companies could help improve the most fundamental beverage-water-in third-world communities. How computer and software companies could help bridge the technology gap that exists outside the U.S. Media, advertising and entertainment companies could help in what amounts to a media war in places like central Asia, where tremendous disinformation has been used to create hatred and violence. Charlotte Beers and the U.S. State Department cannot do this alone.

It's been said some brands are now more powerful than many governments. It's time we unleashed that power in a direction that still promotes profitability but not by sacrificing people or the environment. More companies need to think in terms of a triple bottom line, where business performance is measured in profits, environmental impact and the contributions a business makes to society.

The future of business will be much more demanding and transparent. Can your business withstand the scrutiny that Nike or Starbucks have received? These companies have been targeted for three reasons: They are visible, they have global influence and they care. They're by no means perfect, but they are beginning to lead by example and show how brands must strike a better balance between profits and benevolence.

Doug Daft, chairman-CEO of Coca-Cola Co., perhaps the world's most powerful and omnipresent brand, has an objective that sums up what this test is all about: "We will do well by doing good," he says. Coca-Cola understands that in the future companies can't succeed by simply doing things right. They will also have to do the right thing.

Scott Bedbury is founder of Brandstream, Seattle, Wash., a brand development consultancy ([email protected]). He has also served as chief marketing officer for Starbucks Coffee Co. and as worldwide advertising director for Nike. His forthcoming book, "A New Brand World," will be published March 4 by Viking Press.

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