Book Review by Hazel Henderson: “BRAND ACTIVISM: NEW CRITICS OF FINANCE”

© 2018

Authors Philip Kotler, globally acclaimed “father of marketing” and Christian Sarkar in this forthcoming book, Brand Activism”, mount the strongest broadside yet by well-known insiders, on current finance and corporate business models. They unpack current corporate public relations and branding for a deeper look into motivations. Are recent marketing and advertising campaigns to deny or cover up malfeasance, or boost stock prices, subvert regulations and policies by lobbying and campaign contributions to politicians? Or are they to steer corporate policies toward more idealists goals and to help support positive social and environmental goals?

The authors develop precise new indicators and frameworks for assessing these trends in corporate and financial sector performance, with for example, their Brand Naming and Shaming listings of Progressive or Regressive brand activism and company policies (pages 36-41):

The Progressives List:

  • Patagonia, with their fight to protect public lands.
  • Unilever (UL), for its sustainability models, based on circular economy principles.
  • Levi Strauss, for its “Americans shouldn’t live in fear of gun violence” campaign.
  • EY, for its demonstrating a commitment to “Inclusive Capitalism” with large asset owners, managers and corporate value-creators.
  • Ben & Jerry’s (UL), a subsidiary of Unilever, for its long record of active support of social and environmental causes.
  • NIKE (NKE), for its ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick for equality and social justice.
  • Seventh Generation (UL), another subsidiary of Unilever, for its mission to inspire a consumer revolution nurturing health and future generations.
  • The Body Shop (BOSB), now acquired by NATURA, the Brazilian giant already committed to Body Shop founder Anita Roddick’s original vision of broad commitment to social and environmental goals and its “Future Fitness” model.
  • Marks & Spencer (OTCQX:MAKSY), for its 100 Commitments to tackle: climate change, waste, resources, fair partnerships and health.
  • Starbucks (SBUS), for its promise to hire 10,000 refugees, an opposition to Trump’s “Muslim-ban” executive order.

The Regressive List:

  • Bayer (OTCPK:BAYRY), for further monopolizing the seed and chemical industry by buying Monsanto, threatening to force even more small and family farms out of business.
  • Beretta, for profiting richly for manufacturing weapons and using the profits to fund the NRA.
  • Exxon-Mobil (XOM), for deceiving the public about climate change for more than 30 years and attempting to intimidate cities and states working to hold it accountable.
  • The GEO Group (GEO), for profiting from mass incarceration of people of color and immigrants at its private prisons while spending millions in lobbying and elections to protect its profits.
  • Goldman Sachs (GS), for continuing to exploit people in Puerto Rico, despite devastation caused by hurricane Maria, through its predatory loans and squeezing maximum corporate profits from the island’s government and people.
  • Koch Industries, for working to dismantle the EPA in the name of fossil fuel profits, while the Koch Brothers network aims to pour $400 million into influencing US elections.
  • Nestle (OTCPK:NSRGY), for extracting Michigan’s groundwater for mere pennies near Flint, where residents pay some of the highest rates in the country for poisoned water.
  • Phillip Morris International (PM), for launching a massive foundation to “healthwash” its image and undermine the implementation of the global tobacco treaty.
  • Shell (RDS.A), for its role in the violent suppression of opposition to its oil projects in Nigeria and beyond and continuing to block lifesaving climate policy globally.
  • Veolia (OTCPK:VEOEY), for its role in the pollution of lead in water crises in Pittsburgh and Flint which have endangered tens of thousands of people, particularly of color and low-income communities.

This brand-shaming list was underwritten by civic organizations: Americans for Tax Fairness, Climate Hawks Vote, Common Cause, Corporate Accountability, Corrections Accountability Project, Daily KOS, Democracy Initiative, Dream Defenders, Enlace, Friends of the Earth Action, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Peace is Loud, Pesticide Action Network, People for the American Way, Plastics Pollution Coalition.

All this blows away earlier, more polite social screens for corporate responsibility and ethical finance, such as CSR, SRI, ESG and values-based impact investing! The authors clarify how the new brand activism is now driven by Millennials, diverse social groups and changing demographics, rising social inequality and environmental hazards. These social changes in all marketplaces pose new reputational risks of action and inaction —- all now invading CEO’s corner offices, asset managers and pension fund portfolio decisions, as well as algorithms of ESG, and impact – based robot traders and investment advisors. Even Larry Fink’s Blackrock and Jim Bogle’s Vanguard and their good intentions, will not be spared, as we see both named in the recent New York Times article “Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet”, Nov. 20, 2018, for investing in companies destroying the natural landscape of Indonesia.

Kotler and Sarkar’s brand naming and shaming represents a new phase in marketing theories and practices, including their “demarketing” models: where reducing consumption enhances Patagonia’s brand. Such demarketing burnishes the reputations of companies now committed to sustainable goals and serving the circular economy goals: re-using, reducing and re-cycling “waste”, and innovating upcycling of these materials into desirable new products, as we describe in our annual Green Transition Scoreboard® reports. Many such companies are in start-up phases and still private, such as ECOR and Terracycle, while others, such as Beyond Meat, in non- animal, vegetarian foods plan IPOs.

This new “reputation economy” the authors describe, is part of a larger global connectivity phenomenon I termed “Mediocracies and their Attention Economies” and in Building a Win-Win World (1996, now an e-book). I pointed out that in today’s hyper-linked world, we all live in “mediocracies” (dominated by often mediocre, unreliable media), whatever our ostensible form’s of government, from democracies to authoritarian to dictatorships. The plight of the FAANGs is further evidence, as we see all “Social Media in the Crosshairs”. Will the Facebook (FB) brand recover, the authors ask? Or will it be eclipsed by former acquisitions it may be forced to divest, under new anti-trust scrutiny? The key is trust (without which markets cannot function) and how to lose it, earn it back and retain it.

The authors break new ground by mentioning so many leading companies traded daily on most securities exchanges worldwide. This means that Brand Activism will be required reading, not only in business schools and by NGOs and campaigners, but by asset managers, owners, pension funds’ trustees and senior corporate executive s worldwide. Better order your pre-publication copy now, from!