Final Analysis: Corporate Identity

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

You’re an executive in a firm whose CEO says he is giving $5 million of his own money to assist the Hyperactive Gay Baby Whales Foundation. On learning this, you are:

A. Outraged

B. Delighted

C. Perplexed that your CEO has $5 million in walking-around money and you haven’t had a raise since Jennifer Aniston was dating Brad Pitt

A CEO taking strong positions is not exactly new. Andrew Carnegie supported education and world peace. John D. Rockefeller advocated the abolition of slavery. These men were so rich and powerful they could have declared the key to health and happiness was a daily application of lima bean marmalade to one’s forehead—and people would have listened.

Still, when corporate honchos take high-profile positions, we inevitably wonder if it’s good for business. Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy seems to have no concern that his opposition to same-sex marriage will harm sales of chicken sandwiches and peach milkshakes. Closer to home, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is apparently comfortable that the $2.5 million donation he and his wife made to support same-sex marriage in a statewide referendum will not alienate Amazon’s customer base.

Cathy marries his personal views with the “biblically based principles” his company was founded on. And the Bezoses’ contribution matches Amazon’s corporate support of the gay marriage measure (which also has the support of prominent corporate heavyweights like Microsoft, Starbucks, REI, Google, Nordstrom and Nike).

This weighing in on a hot-button issue invites reaction, and people vote with their pocketbooks all the time. Price, reputation and convenience drive us to prefer one vendor over another. But what about politics? If I agree with Jeff Bezos on gay marriage but disagree with him on a state income tax, do I shop at Amazon on the even-numbered days and boycott on the odd? Is one issue more “important” or more “defining” than the other?

Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert, told the Pay Dirt blog at SmartMoney.com that he sees the future of corporate identity evolving. “We’ll see two types of brands: those appealing to the general masses and those that aim to raise awareness on certain issues,” Lindstrom says. “People will either love or hate them.”

He may be right. Washington state this year added a new category of incorporation called the social purpose corporation. This approach allows a for-profit company to integrate social and environmental objectives into its mission statement. The idea is to remove legal restrictions traditionally imposed on directors of for-profit corporations so they can pursue both social and financial goals in the for-profit context.

Imagine that! Making money while also making a difference. It’s a path not every CEO will be comfortable taking, but it tends to make sense in today’s politically charged environment. Darcy Burner, who ran unsuccessfully in the August primary for a shot at a congressional seat, suggests there ought to be a smartphone app that allows a person to scan the barcode of an item to see if it’s made by a company whose politics the shopper agrees with.

That could make grocery shopping laborious, but why should I buy Kleenex from a business that takes my money and sneezes at the things I believe in, like, say, spreading lima bean marmalade on the foreheads of gay baby whales? I’m sure I could find another company that shares my views. Anyone? Anyone?

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

 

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