It’s an old principle that if you don’t actually keep your good deeds entirely to yourself, at least don’t flaunt them all over the place. (Jesus said quite a lot about that.) In general, companies have been cautious about claiming too much for their efforts in philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR), partly as they have often borne not a lot of relationship with their brand (with the move to CSR this has shifted somewhat), partly because they can draw critical attention (hard this: you want to be noticed but not too much).
It’s not new for a major corporation to try greening its image, though the example we all remember is (ahem) Beyond Petroleum, Lord Browne’s effort to reposition BP as one of the good guys, which finally blew up in the Gulf.
Yet the context is shifting fast, as brands get weaker, transparency strengthens, uppity customers engage in energetic social media, and a new premium is placed on alignment between social mores and the values of the each stage of the value chain. Apple has recognized this in its rather bold move with Fair Labor and Foxconn (smart business move to contain social risk to the planet’s leading and most profitable brand, though with its own hazards).
So Unilever’s decision to push sustainability into its advertising is notable. It will encourage scrutiny of its claims and more generally of the company behind them (CSR is, at the end of the day, like all values efforts, indivisible). It also sends a message to the gazillion workers at all levels in the corporation that the C Suite is serious about this re-messaging and what needs to lie behind it. And it offers a good example, as Susan McPherson @susanmcp1 of Fenton has noted on Twitter, of the steady mainstreaming evident in CSR.
More on this theme in my columns for the U.S. Chamber – http://bclc.uschamber.com/profile/nigel-m-de-s-cameron