The playing field for companies of all types has changed. Technology and communications are continuously advancing. Dramatic sociopolitical events are occurring at an accelerating pace. And people’s definitions of value are shifting. The old models for business—with businesses running the show and consumers and employees coming along for the ride—no longer speak to the needs, longings, and practical realities of our modern society. Large multinational corporations, midsize companies, and start-up social enterprises alike have an opportunity to advance society, sustain the planet, and do good in the world, while simultaneously earning a profit for shareholders.

The ethos that I have termed “Brand Citizenship” is a way of doing business—from a company’s core purpose; to its delivery of goods and services; to its responsibility to its employees, community, the environment, and the world—that people trust, believe in, and rely on. Brand citizenship creates a sense of partnership and belonging, all with the aim of earning profits that are maintainable over the long term. While socially conscious brands, cool start-ups, and social enterprises have helped fuel the movement for Brand Citizenship, because of their size, the impact of their efforts will go only so far. More corporate giants must also take up the mantle. When businesses of all sizes behave responsibly and operate more holistically, people, communities, society, and the whole planet will move forward together.


The first step on the pathway of Brand Citizenship is a seemingly simplistic one: making the decision to change. This requires courage to break from business as usual. It means distinctive departments, outside agency teams, and other partners must work closely together. In a business climate seeking to eliminate risk through big data analytics, the notion of no absolute rights and wrongs can be discomforting. Accepting that trial and error is necessary to break the status quo and create meaningful social impact is a hallmark of charting new territory—and of Brand Citizenship.
Shaking old habits and acculturating to new ways of doing things takes time. And, although most businesses today accept that continual innovation is necessary to remain relevant, many continue to be nervous about the financial risks implied in adapting dynamic frameworks. No matter where a brand is in the process, however, it may fail several times before being successful. Experiment, fine-tune processes, scale initiatives, measure impact, and begin again.


Brand Citizenship also begins with a clearly defined brand purpose. An effective purpose opens a brand up to endless possibilities by motivating action through greater meaning. Defining brand purpose—or why your business exists—is not an easy task. It must be true to who you are and what you do, not based on a competitor’s position, advocacy group’s demands, or politically correct definition. Identifying it typically requires stepping back and reviewing your heritage; gaining a deep understanding of your customers’, employees’, and other key stakeholders’ desires and expectations for your industry or category; and reflecting on the core competencies and values that drive business success today as well as those that will shape it in the future. When a purpose is true to what a brand delivers, it taps into universal truths that emotively stir employees at all levels across an organization, to do good and have an impact.


While many organizations may first look to underpin brand purpose with a set of values, dissonance between stated company values and actual behavior has resulted in a deep cynicism toward corporate or brand values. By nature, values are subjective or relative, not universal. Establishing rules for “ethical conduct” or behavior, operating principles that reinforce your brand purpose and promote behaviors to deliver it, every day and in every action taken, may be more practical—and can be more transformative—than values. While it’s tempting to craft operating principles that are highly specific and prescribe exact behaviors, the most motivating are designed to engage, not constrain, employees, emphasizing what is important while leaving room to breathe.


As does any successful journey, Brand Citizenship requires milestones to benchmark and track performance. Brands must have clear plans that express their brand purpose through the objectives set. By publicly publishing their plans, brands can commit to them wholeheartedly by raising the reputational risk of abandoning them. Equally important, businesses must challenge themselves to think differently, seeking inspiration from a wide range of resources inside and outside the organization to deliver their goals and embed purpose more deeply into their day-to-day behavior.


Measure impact and begin again. In the same way market share, profitability, and sustainability are tracked, ongoing metrics are essential to diagnose how a company is performing as a Brand Citizen over time. There are numerous ways to do this, from designing custom market research studies to producing balanced scorecards. Ultimately, any Brand Citizenship analytics should supply insight that enables a business to continually adapt to a shifting landscape and develop programs that will increase trust, enrich lives, behave responsibly, cultivate community, and amplify a brand’s greater contribution, all on the road to deliver its purpose.


As companies reframe their priorities, social and political movements will continue to evolve, and culture will morph. Alongside this, people’s relationships with brands will change, as will their expectations for good Brand Citizenship—whether they be customers, employees, investors, business partners, investors, or other stakeholders. It’s crucial that business leaders stay abreast of changes—no matter how subtle—as they are happening, not after they’ve occurred. Leaders also need to be able to discern which trends are short-term blips and which represent long-term cultural transformations that need to be integrated into brand development and business operations.

Brands that understand how they impact people’s lives through the products and services they offer and how this in turn creates financial and social value have always been able to tap into collective knowledge and transform markets. They shape the future because they know the role they play today, where they want to be, and the assets they have and need to acquire to get there. Brands that are clear about how they advance society, that integrate sincere practices into their marketing and operations, and that turn ethics into results exemplify good Brand Citizenship. They do well by doing good, and they will always be touted as leaders.

With more than 25 years of experience as a global brand strategist, Anne Bahr Thompson is an accomplished researcher, writer and speaker, and the pioneer of the strategic framework of Brand Citizenship®. A former executive director of strategy and planning and head of consulting at Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, Anne founded Onesixtyfourth, a boutique consultancy, to integrate cultural shifts & a social conscience into brand development. Her writings have appeared in Economist Books,, The Guardian, Brand Quarterly, Bloomberg News, and many other publications.

Anne’s new book, DO GOOD: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, is available in stores and online now.