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Brands’ Future Is Creating Shared Value, Not Just Social Responsibility Campaigns

In a seminal article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2011, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer defined a new paradigm for business with the words “shared value.” The idea is that the future of today’s brands will lie in aligning business success with positive social impact for people and the planet. This is a new way of looking at corporate citizenship, from occasional philanthropic and cause-oriented actions that lie outside of their core business, to the core business itself and its potential to make the world a better place.

Both of these represent a transient, perhaps insincere, and unsustainable role for brands in making the world better, whereas aligning how the actual products and services can make a positive impact makes them enduring and sustainable.

The truth is, today’s greatest and most enduring brands came into the world through a shared-value idea. The world’s most-loved brands started with a single person who saw a societal need and looked to create something that could address that need and make the world a better place.

Thomas Edison saw an opportunity to bring light to the world.

Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to bring the power of computing to the rest of us.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw an opportunity to bring every piece of information that has ever existed quickly to the eyes of every human being on the planet.

The chances are that back in that lab, that garage, and that dorm room, that first magic spark wasn’t fueled into a fire through visions of future shareholders and IPOs, or future legions of VPs, committees and HR policies. Chances are it was fueled by a fierce desire to, at the very least, respond to a societal need, and at the most, fundamentally change the world.

We would venture that this is true of most brands in existence today. The problem is that as a consequence of growth and time, they have been temporarily disconnected from that first magic spark. At first, the ambition of growth is to serve the scaled impact of that first shared-value idea, but through time brands lose contact with that original motivation and growth gets misidentified as the ends as opposed to the means. Growth replaces the first “why” of the brand.

One of the shared-value platforms we admire most is IBM‘s “Smarter Planet” initiative. “Smarter Planet” is not a reinvention of the brand’s business and services. It is about looking at all the brand’s existing products and services through a new shared-value lens. It’s not about making business machines — it’s about consciously and deliberately bringing products and services forward in the context of providing smart solutions for challenges in the world. It is fascinating how profoundly “Smarter Planet” unites the two mantras Thomas Watson originally embedded into the brand: “Think” and “World Peace through World Trade.”

Another powerful, recent, and quite radical shared-value platform is from Patagonia, as expressed through initiatives like Common Threads, Worn-Wear, and now The Responsible Economy. The idea of reuse, recycling and being adamantly against the disposable mindset is indeed where the brand started. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, as a young climber over 50 years ago, was disheartened by all the pitons left in the big walls of Yosemite and was determined to make a piton that could be extracted and reused. He taught himself blacksmithing and created reusable pitons as his first products and sold them out of the back of his car to support his climbing.

In our work across many different divisions of Google, we have found an underlying shared-value truth that connects all of its services and goes back to the very genesis of the brand. Whether it is Maps, Street View, Chrome or Glass, all of these services align with the very first magic spark of search: helping people get to better things, faster.

What is also powerful about the shared-value lens is that it creates a north star for the future development of the brand and its businesses, and with that, a compelling sense of accountability. How impactful it will be for both brands and the world when brands adopt their shared-value north star and begin to ask themselves, “If this is true of our brand and business, and if this is true of where we started, then where do we go from here with what we endeavor to put into the world?”