Observations by Claire Irving

October 29th 2012. No power. No cell phone reception. No water – we’re on a well. This is our situation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It could have been so much worse. Whole communities across the North East of America have been devastated, thousands of houses arbitrarily rearranged, businesses forced to close, not to mention cars and transport links submerged as Sandy did her worst. And at her most uncompromising she took multiple lives. The number of people who lost everything in the storm is still somewhat unclear but growing.

On Wednesday I began to slowly reconnect with the outside world through email. (Thank goodness for the beneficence of the local gym, which has become the temporary home we share with countless other families from across our community.) As I fired up my laptop, hundreds of unread emails leaked into my inbox. As I scanned their headings and abruptly selected the delete command it struck me how many of these messages did not acknowledge the events of the past 48 hours, let alone empathize with the people who have suffered in some way. The message was, it’s business as usual; 10% off for outerwear, a great deal on hair color, coupons for holiday gifts, and so the list went on. Does a certain outdoors apparel brand really believe most people in the affected States will be whipping out their credit cards and ordering snow boots when they haven’t got water, some have lost their income, or their worldly possessions?

For me, one email stood apart from the rest: J Crew had sent it’s heartfelt condolences to the affected communities and explained the hurricane fall out was slowing down some of their deliveries. Considering how devastated some lives have been by Sandy’s torture, having your sweater delivered a few days late really isn’t a big deal; they had, however, at least acknowledged the event and as the first brand that I personally experienced doing so, this humanized them, at least in my mind. It got me thinking about good brand citizenship and favorite brands. Our latest round of CultureQ data (most of the research for which took place over the summer) identified that people’s relationships with their favorite brands replicate the many complex dynamics of human friendship. When people feel intimately connected with their favorite brands, they in turn positively advocate for them and a large percentage consider cheating on them as “unthinkable.” Very importantly people’s favorite brands also demonstrate good brand citizenship. They help their users integrate “doing good” into their daily interactions with their favorite brand, and ultimately this helps connect their users to something more meaningful.

The definition of a good brand citizen is inclusive. However, all good brand citizens deliver against individual consumer needs (such as fair value for product quality and products that simplify our lives, amongst other qualities). Their activities then span out to encompass more textbook-live CSR and ethically associated activities. The most respected brand citizens, such as the mighty Google, demonstrate a consistent commitment to improving the lives of their users, their communities, and society at large. Brands such as this are repeatedly singled out not because they are reactive heroes who ride in and pledge money or support in the aftermath of a crisis. Of course, many of these companies have some big bang, big budget CSR initiatives, however by and large, a meaningful core purpose roots their day-to-day business activities.

It’s been reported that in the wake of Sandy’s devastation, companies such as Duracell and Goldman Sachs have reached out a helping hand by providing electronic charging stations in Manhattan. Support of this kind should increase goodwill towards their brands, but until they consistently integrate meaningful activities across their business operations, it’s doubtful these reactive heroes will be consistently picked out as good brand citizens over the long term. As one of our Millennial panel commented, “CSR has become a zero sum game.” Many activities aren’t associated with a brand after the “do good” event. It was good to see Coca-Cola and General Motors applauded for contribution to the disaster recovery effort. CultureQ respondents have identified both brands as good brand citizens across our studies over the past year.

Brand leaders of the future will not treat CSR as an opportunistic activity. In a world where businesses need to consistently keep the public on-side, leaders will consistently take their responsibility toward society seriously. They will use their considerable influence and resources to create solutions that improve their users’ lives, as well as find ones which ultimately improve society at large and sustain the planet. So whilst Duracell’s charging centers are most likely very gratefully received by the legions of smart-phone and tablet users around Battery Park, maybe the brand could also be investing in activities which help their customers, the people who ordinarily buy their batteries. Making it easier for people to recycle their batteries might be a relevant starting point. Ultimately, companies such as Duracell should strive to help people change their behaviors to halt climate change. If Sandy has taught us one branding lesson, it’s good brand citizenship efforts are not just worthy and topical they are purposeful and material as well.