Social Brands and Socially Useful Marketing

Jim Brown, Bristol based activist and co-operator, asks whether ‘social brands’ might transform capitalism. 

Social brands and socially useful marketing 

When I first read Naomi Klein’s book No Logo I was both puzzled and excited. Published in 2000, it is a brilliant critique of consumer capitalism, driven by an anti-corporate sentiment that challenges readers to think about how they behave as consumers, how our tastes, desires and needs are shaped by marketing campaigns that build brands, epitomised by the corporate logo. No Logo is a plea to fight back, to resist having our lives taken over by global corporations, to counter consumerism with citizenship and community solidarity. But I was puzzled by the “no” bit of No Logo. Was she really proposing a world where logos were banned, where branding was somehow outlawed? Why couldn’t it have been about the transformation of marketing into something more socially useful? 

Is there more than one way to run a market? 

Marketing is a relatively new discipline, having only been fully accepted by business academia in the 1950s, when the art of sales and advertising was superseded by a new social science aimed at influencing human desires. It was the dawn of a new age of consumerism, where what people wanted was too limiting a factor for the capacity and appetite of capitalism. The twin goals of business growth and wealth maximisation meant manufacturing goods and services wasn’t enough, now capitalism demanded the manufacture of needs.   

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I remember reading my sister’s sociology course book by Vance Packard called The Waste Makers. It had a picture of an American car on the front cover, combining the two things I hankered after most; the USA (I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts) and cars (I was approaching 16 and desperate to get a driving licence). The book introduced me to the concept of “planned obsolescence”, designing things to fall apart so that consumers would buy a replacement. To stop them getting angry about their old cars that fell apart, designers and marketeers had to create a hunger for the latest models, dressed up to be more innovative, desirable, charismatic, or even sexual. Packard’s other books, including The Hidden Persuaders and The Naked Society, provided a powerful criticism of early marketing, addressing matters that are still prescient today, such as the use of personal data to shape and direct marketing campaigns.  

Brands are the epitome of marketing, a symbol of private ownership and private property. Brand comes from the Germanic word to burn, referencing the practice of marking private property with a red-hot branding iron. Defended by copyright, patents, and trademarks, it is one of the few areas where businesses call for greater and tighter regulation, not less. Brands are the intangible assets of a business. Spending on brand development is counted as capital investment, on the basis that it might generate revenue benefit over several years. This is good news for start-ups because it disguises what would otherwise have to be presented as heavy trading losses. It is also good news for marketing agencies because it lets them off the hook of having to prove short term value for money from spend on brand development. 

Brands are fierce in protecting their identity. There have been famous trademark disputes, such as Apple Computers versus Apple Corp’s Beatles record label, or World Wrestling Federation fight with World Wildlife Fund for control of the acronym WWF. Iceland, the frozen food retailer, has been engaged in a cod war with Iceland, the nation, over the right to use the name in Europe. Comedian Joe Lycett changed his name to Hugo Boss as a deliberate provocation directed at the German fashion brand’s threats of legal action against small businesses and charities using the word “boss” in their names.  

Marketing is about the manipulation of markets through competition, domination, and control. Free markets. Everyone is a free agent, so if you don’t like the deal, don’t do it. Except, one party to the market transaction has invested heavily in tilting the market in their direction. Capitalism has become synonymous with market economies, free and private enterprise, as though the only alternative to capitalism is communism, a command economy, with no choice, no individualism, no independence, and no freedom.  

This is ridiculous of course. Markets, enterprise, trade existed before capitalism, and will survive its demise. There will still be markets, enterprise, and trade in a post-capitalist world. Businesses will still need investors, workers, customers, and suppliers. But it doesn’t need to be all in the interests of capital. As I argued in a previous IEI blog, a new way of trading in a market economy is possible.  

Recognising social brands 

Instead of no logo, no brands, no marketing, is it possible to imagine marketing as a force for good, where brands serve a socially useful purpose, and logos are a sign of positive change? Just in the same way that social enterprise challenges the orthodoxy of private enterprise, could there be social brands that challenge the hegemony of private brands? What would a social brand look like? Rather than being the private property of a single business, could many businesses share ownership of a social brand?  A socially owned brand for the common good?  

I read No Logo in 2006, about the same time as an environmental activist called Rob Hopkins was making waves with Transition Town Totnes. It was a practical, detailed plan for how this market town in Devon could prepare itself for life beyond peak oil. Having heard Rob talk, it occurred to me that maybe Transition Towns were a living example of a social brand. It had a great name, instantly memorable and communicable of meaning and purpose. It employed civil movement campaign tactics, offering itself as living proof of what could be achieved and replicated elsewhere. It provided simple how-to guidance, explaining what a Transition Town was, and the steps involved in getting started. It used participatory training and education to encourage people to become practitioners and set up local groups. It networked with other campaigns, especially Friends of the Earth, to support local initiatives such as farmers markets and local currencies. And very soon Transition Towns went viral. Within the blink of an eye there were ten, twenty, a hundred Transition Towns around the world. The local went global. Today, the Transition Network acts as a global body, listing over 1,000 local groups in 58 countries.  

I came to realise that social brands had been around for as long as private brands and marketing itself. New social brands, such as Farmers Markets, Slow Food, and Local Currencies were learning how to do it from old-timer social brands such as organic farming and Fairtrade.  The in-vogue terms of the mid 2000s, “social enterprise”, “social entrepreneurs”, “social investment”, “social impact” and “social value” all bear the hallmarks of social brands, some more successful than others.   

Organic farming started in the early 20th century with the work of Rudolph Steiner in Germany promoting biodynamic farming methods that spread across Europe. The Bristol based UK organic certification body, the Soil Association, was founded in 1946, bringing together farmers, consumers, retailers, scientists and campaigners. By the 1970s, the Soil Association had established a brand name, organic, together with a logo, a definition of organic farming, an assessment and certification process that was protective of the brand, but also educative for farmers who wanted the advice, guidance and know-how to become organic.  With the globalisation of food markets there have been moves to establish internationally recognised organic standards and certification systems. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was established in 1972 and has made slow but steady progress towards the IFOAM Family of Standards, launched in 2011, as a multi-lateral global agreement. The global organic food market was valued at $168bn in 2020 and is expected to reach $369bn by 2026.  

Social brands bring together the apparently disparate strands of civil movement campaigns, voluntary self-regulation led by NGOs, based on schemes of assessment, accreditation, certification and audit, business support for enterprises adopting the social brand, and open membership of democratic and transparent national governing bodies. Unlike private brands, which belong to a single corporate entity, social brands are open to any business that chooses to adopt the standards embodied in the brand, including competing businesses in the same sector of activity. Social brands are educative and transformational, helping businesses to learn about and adopt good practice in their market sector, and helping consumers to understand the social, environmental, and economic impacts of their consumption. Above all, social brands pursue a public good, in contrast to private brands that are dedicated to private gain.  

Social brands can transform how international trade is done. The Fairtrade movement started as a Christian church initiative to support small independent coffee growers in developing countries when global coffee prices collapsed in the 1970s. It guaranteed a price premium for growers in return for protecting workers rights, safer working conditions and fairer pay. Over the years it has spread to other products including cocoa, tea, bananas, sugar, wine, nuts, cotton, and flowers. The global Fairtrade market was valued at nearly €10bn in 2018. 

The Living Wage is another example of a social brand created by a civil campaign movement. The National Minimum Wage was introduced by a Labour government in 1998, but it was set at a rate that didn’t cover the cost of living for most people, especially those living in London. Citizens London launched a campaign in East London in 2001 demanding that employers pay a “living wage” instead, targeting outsourced hospital services such as cleaners and ancillary workers. Ten years later, the Living Wage Foundation was formed. It accredits employers who sign up to paying at least the Living Wage, an amount recalculated each year based on the cost of living, and significantly more than the National Minimum Wage, a negotiated settlement based on recommendations from businesses and trade unions. Currently, nearly 9,000 business have adopted the Living Wage, including 40% of FTSE100 companies.  

The success of the Living Wage Foundation has encouraged other campaign groups to set up social brands targeted at employers. The Fair Tax Mark, established in in 2015, an accreditation scheme for businesses engaged in responsible and transparent corporation tax practices. The Good Business Charter, a joint initiative of the CBI and TUC, was established in 2019 to accredit businesses that can meet all 10 components of its charter: real living wage, fairer hours and contracts, employee well-being, employee representation, diversity and inclusion, environmental responsibility, paying fair tax, commitment to customers, ethical sourcing, and prompt payment. Over 700 organisations have already been accredited.  

The Living Wage story illustrates both the strength and weakness of social brands. Voluntary self-regulation will always less powerful than statutory regulation, not least because not everyone will adopt the brand. The great majority of businesses pay less than a Living Wage to at least some of their employees. But voluntary standards can place pressures on government to improve law. As an act of tribute, or as a deliberate attempt to cause confusion, the Tory government of 2016 launched its National Living Wage for those over 23, forcing the Living Wage Foundation to rebrand as the Real Living Wage. The National Living Wage is based on a percentage of median earnings, targeted to reach 66% by 2024. The Real Living Wage in London is currently 24% above the National Living Wage and covers everyone over 18. 

Social brand takeover? 

The power of social brands is understood by business and government. Civil society and consumers are one and the same people, so businesses might benefit from aligning themselves with social brands, especially those businesses that serve consumer markets directly. Governments too might prefer social brands because it relieves them of the responsibility of introducing statutory regulations. In 1998, Clare Short, then Secretary of State for International Development, was closely involved in establishing the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). It campaigns for workers’ rights, targeting sweatshops serving the supply chains of some of the UK’s largest retailers. It won the support of NGOs but also of big UK retailers, such as Asda and Body Shop. From a business point of view, maybe it was better to be involved in setting the standards of a social brand than be subject to statutory regulation.  

Environmental and climate change NGOs have long understood the power of social brands too. The Rainforest Alliance, established in 1987 by American campaigner Daniel Katz, has developed sustainable agriculture certification for farmers working in rainforests. The Forest Stewardship Council, founded in 1993, was created by NGOs frustrated by the slow progress of the Rio Earth Summit, to tackle the global problems of deforestation. These social brands are targeted directly at big businesses, and in the spirit of openness and transparency, have big businesses as their members and funders, and in some cases, their founders. The Marine Stewardship Council was established in 1997 by a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and global consumer products manufacturer Unilever. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded in 2004 by WWF and consortium of manufacturers and retailers including Unilever and Sainsbury’s.  

This raises questions about whether social brands, which are essentially civil society initiatives, are vulnerable to being hijacked, appropriated, diluted, or manipulated. B-Corps, a social brand for ethical businesses, has been adopted by Ben & Jerrys, a subsidiary of Unilever, and Innocent Drinks, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola. Danone, one of the world’s largest food producers, has also made a habit of buying B-corps businesses as subsidiaries. Big business can pick and choose which social brands to adopt. Unilever has never adopted organic or Fairtrade certification, preferring instead its own ethical and environmental standards, but it has signed up with the Living Wage Foundation. It is a member of the Rainforest Alliance but has not joined the ETI. Every major food retailer in the UK is a member of ETI, so it is a bit of a puzzle why Unilever has stayed out.  

Recognising the existence of social brands and distinguishing them from private brands might be vital in maintaining their potency for civil society. Keeping capitalism out of social brands might be crucial for their credibility. This raises questions about the governance and funding of social brands, their relationship with governments and the pathways to statutory regulation of business. The ambition of every social brand should be that it is replaced by legislation at a national, and hopefully one day, transnational and global level. Otherwise, social brands run the danger of becoming ethicswash laundrettes for big business.  

Private brand development long ago shifted from focusing on products and services to the corporation itself. It’s not the car, the computer, or the credit card, it’s the company, its corporate lifestyle, its community. Suits and ties are out, jeans and T-shirts are in. The office and factory are out, replaced by a workers’ playpen. Now it’s all ethics, the environment, global diversity, climate change and community, community, community. It is fifty years since ad agency McCann Erikson adopted a song written by the Bristol born Cook and Greenaway partnership as the Coke jingle “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”, an early example of the corporation as a community and lifestyle.  Now its Apple Support Communities, Nike Community Stores, Facebook Communities, and Amazon Prime Members. The language of civil society has been incorporated by big business into a dream that goes beyond consumerism to where it becomes a way of life. You can be a member, be part of a community, share the dream, but you cannot touch. The brand is private property. Keep off. In the act of purchasing their product or service, paradoxically, you have become their property.  

Social brands need to be the voice of the people, the fight back against private brands, in the pursuit of socially useful production. The definition, function and governance of social brands need to be described, debated, and above all protected. Maybe the future for social brands is to transition into statutory regulation, both locally and globally. The global challenges of climate change and inequality will only be met through the mechanism of global law, not a logo adopted and adapted by big business to reinforce their private brands.