What to do when good brands make bad things? Or bad brands do good?

Pepsi makes brown sugar water that can contribute to obesity. Dove’s ‘Real beauty’ campaign was created by Unilever that also does the Axe campaign. Walmart has raised the bar on sustainability standards. In fact, almost every brand doing meaningful work can be accused of providing some product or service that can be harmful, and many so-called villains contribute to important social programs. So what do we do? Is it an all or nothing situation? Or is there room for grey?

I don’t think there is anything to be gained by being black and white on this issue. Transparency, authenticity and accountability from brands is paramount. There is no doubt about that. But it’s unrealistic to expect brands to exercise their duty to society and their shareholders without difficult compromises being made. Compromises that mean companies that do good work still source, produce and sell products and services in ways that are undeniably harmful to people and our planet.

Does that mean brands get a free pass to some degree? No. Does it mean we ease up pressure on them to exercise conscionable behavior? No. Does it justify the damage they do to people lives, the environment or to our children’s future? Absolutely not. However, I don’t think this battle can be won by demonizing brands. Instead we must look to work with them and celebrate the good work they do as permission slips for others to do the same.

The power of the Pepsi Refresh Project, Starbucks Shared Planet, Ford’s Invisible People, Nike’s Livestrong, Target Bullseye, Walmart’s Sustainability and Best Buy’s @15 campaigns is not limited to the actual cause efforts they support. Their additional power lies in the shift in corporate thinking they enable. By demonstrating to companies obsessed with self-interest that doing good is good business, they allow others to expand their definition of self-interest to include the greater good.

We must celebrate this growing number of well-intended corporate initiatives even though these same companies can be accused of mixed motives or double standards. We are in a period of broad transition in which – as a function of genuine dialogue between brands and consumers, heightened awareness of crises through the internet, and a recognition of our interdependence within our global community – companies around the world are waking up to their responsibility as social change agents. This transition may take twenty years to complete before the private sector becomes a third pillar of social change in addition to government and philanthropy, but it has begun.

By celebrating the good works of brands we encourage them and others to do the same. As we support the success of those initiatives, these brands can do more to shift the products and services into comprehensive alignment with their core values. Only then will we see the emergence of many more companies who have successfully married profit and purpose, and only then can we realistically demand that all brands do the same.

Do you agree that we should focus on positive brand behavior to enable others to do the same? Or should we take all brands to task for any behavior that has a negative impact right now?