BP raises the issues of perceptions of brand responsibility

The cataclysmic environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico have stimulated much discussion and I don’t wish to add to that noise. What it does flag up however, is the changing perception of responsibility in the west. We have seen the trend in government where there is a perception that Government should somehow solve everybody’s problems. The economic issues that the government is wrestling with now are seen as somebody else’s responsibility and hence somebody else’s problem. So far as politicians are concerned perhaps they can be seen to have brought much of this themselves by suggesting: “Elect me and I will cure all your ills”. This is usually followed with a rush to legislation – followed quickly by public disappointment and anger.

In terms of corporate (and hence ‘brand’) responsibility, the same has become true. The public now have high expectations that companies and brand stewards are totally reponsible for every direct and indirect impact their business dealings have.  Of course, organizations do have corporate responsibilities and over recent decades our expectations have have been raised in areas such as product liability, anti-trust, probity and environmental responsibility.

It is interesting that this abnegation of individual responsibility in favour of ‘them’ or ‘somebody’ seems strongest in western countries. Perhaps this reflects Geert Hofstede’s Individualism index for cultures (individualism v collectivism) where the USA ranks 1, with and index of 91 and UK ranks 3, with 89. Returning briefly to the Gulf disaster, individuals want cheap and plentiful fuel, and the dealing with the issues of carbon emissions, environmental risk and potential disaster are someone else’s responsibility. Governments want security of supply and inexpensive fuel for their people and assume that corporations will take responsibility for everything else.

For brand stewards there are two issues. Firstly they must take their corporate responsibilities seriously – not just statements or rhetoric, but real behaviours. But even having done that they must realise that public expectations of them may be even higher. Often these expectations may be unreasonable, but they are a fact of the world in which we live. It will not help the brand to yell, “Unfair”. We need to prepare our brands to live in an unreasonable world.

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