When brands take a stand, who benefits? Why do some companies support charities loudly, while others are more discreet?

The cynical observer will quickly bring down any effort by a big-brand corporation to support a worthy cause, whether it’s fighting disease, helping the poor, or protecting the environment. The cynic says it’s all a PR gimmick to hide a guilty conscience or a questionable record.

There is no doubt that corporate support for worthy causes does benefit the needier elements of society; it provides billions in funding and countless hours of donated employee time annually. And arguably, the corporations do benefit from the additional goodwill that the publicity surrounding their giving brings.

Customers, too, benefit—if indirectly. As well as making a better society, brands that advocate a good cause show that their parent companies are healthy enough and well-managed enough to be able to spare a thought for “doing good,” and well-managed, profitable manufacturers naturally produce better goods and services.

The “green” brand

Established in the 1980s, The Body Shop was one of the first brands to show that concern for the environment or animal welfare could propel a brand to success. Its many imitators only proved how profound and lasting was customers’ desire for “advocacy” brands.

Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the US if not the entire world, decided to “go green” partly as a defensive measure against detractors who claimed the firm was unconcerned with health or the environment. Along the way, Wal-Mart discovered that stocking organic foods was a smart brand initiative. Besides taking the teeth out of detractors’ arguments, it put the entire grocery industry in North America on notice that organic and healthy foods belong firmly in the mainstream. This has encouraged more wholesalers to certify their products as organic, grown the entire organic food industry, and resulted in wider distribution and lower prices for all organic foods. The benefits extend far beyond Wal-Mart’s own aisles.

The “justice” brand

Long gone are the days when corporate barons hadn’t the slightest concern for workers’ well-being. Companies still need to produce their goods as quickly and cheaply as possible, and will often outsource production to regions with less stringent controls on working conditions. Nonetheless, big brands like Nike, Benetton, and Gap are highly sensitive to accusations of using sweatshop labor. All of them have learned, to their cost, that customers expect workers to be treated fairly, and that espousing better treatment is good for their brands.

Giving coffee growers in developing nations a fair price for their harvest—the principle of Fairtrade—is strongly espoused by the Starbucks coffee brand, and other food and drinks brands that want to attract young customers with sophisticated ideas about the world. Starbucks goes so far as to claim that there aren’t enough Fairtrade-certified beans for them to buy, and is taking steps to help farmers obtain certification. EDUN, a firm started by Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, sells clothing made in developing countries with the aim of letting those makers retain a larger share of the sale price.

An excellent and innovative example of brands using their power for good is the (PRODUCT) RED initiative to help fight AIDS in Africa. This brand is unusual in being applied as a co-brand with other major brands—including Gap, iPod, Armani, Converse, Motorola, and American Express—across a range of categories. Aside from helping a good cause, the brands aren’t shy about profiting from sales of (RED) products. They benefit from association with the cause, but the cause also benefits from their endorsement.
The “are we OK?” brand

Dove, originally a brand of soap, extended into underwear and other feminine products. The extension worked because the brand’s meaning transcended the product category to stand for “inner beauty.” To convince women that the brand cared about them, and not just their appearance, Dove started the Real Beauty campaign to communicate to young girls the value of confidence, self-esteem, and a healthy, realistic body image. This included educational television spots, and web discussion forums.