Are Brands more powerful than Governments?

on Thursday, 12 August 2004. Posted in Business

It was a noteworthy opening to any conference: a former supermodel/small business Bangladeshi entrepreneur, a former child laborer/Fortune 500 executive/author/consultant/philanthropist, the former Chairman & CEO of Unilever Spain & France/President of International Organization of Employers and the Director General of the Universal Forum of Cultures Barcelona 2004.

It was a noteworthy opening to any conference: a former supermodel/small business Bangladeshi entrepreneur, a former child laborer/Fortune 500 executive/author/consultant/philanthropist, the former Chairman & CEO of Unilever Spain & France/President of International Organization of Employers and the Director General of the Universal Forum of Cultures Barcelona 2004.

The conference? The Role of the Corporation in the 21st Century in the Barcelona Forums sparkling new 67,000 square metre convention center in front of over 800 global business and non-profit leaders and some of the worlds brightest MBA students. This unusual group gathered to share, discuss and create socially and environmentally sustainable business practices, July 19-22, 2004 in Barcelona Spain. It was an exciting and sometimes contentious four days of dialogue and intense discussions, ranging from optimism to bordering on despair, on the state of business and the world.

I was that child laborer who grew up to return as a business executive to my native Hong Kong to improve the working conditions and environmental standards that I experienced when I was young. What I presented was a human face on the impact of global business, and the pros and cons to development and economic growth. A jumble of wonder, nostalgia and gratitude rushed through me as I spoke to the packed room.

The Forum was another opportunity for me to make a constructive impact in the world. A way to raise social and environmental consciousness and collaboration between people, businesses and non-governmental organizations, what a long way from the streets of Tai Po, Hong Kong, China. The Universal Forum of Culture Barcelona 2004 was designed to gather people globally to share, learn and synergize on the key issues of our time : Sustainable Development, Cultural Diversity and the Conditions for Peace. Forty five conferences on these topics are convening at the Forum from May 9 to September 26th. In addition, there are over 423 concerts, large scale multimedia and art exhibits from around the world and lots of interactive entertainment being offered in this cultural extravaganza.

The Role of the Corporation in the 21st Century Conference was convened by the top three business schools in Spain, ESADE Business School, Instituto De Empresa Business School and IESE Business School. The conference examined the role of the corporation as a creator of wealth, an engine of social progress, as a negative influence on cultural values, the environment and also as exploitative force. The power relationships between the governments, large companies and multinationals were also discussed.

What does this mean to you the investor, consumer and voter? We read cases of how it seems that governments often bow to corporate pressure to give subsidies, special tax breaks, and pressure other countries to change their policies. In the 1950s, General Motors used to say what is good for General Motors is good for America. Is that true for all big brands? Do they still believe that what is good for them is good for the whole country and even the world? Or is it true that we as consumers, investors and voters have woken up to realize that there are other considerations for what is good for a country and for the world? What is the reality today?

Do we need more regulation to ensure that governments are making policies to promote the welfare of its people? Do brands influence governmental policy so much that the greater social and environmental good is secondary?

My premise is that it is a balancing act; brands are growing in global importance and both brands and governments are also growing in awareness of the need to balance the financial, social and environmental welfare of the people and the planet.

What I like to bring up now is the true most powerful force on the planet. The power is in you. You are the consumer, the investor and the voter. You can decide where you want to place your confidence in. Take the time and effort to find out about issues and vote with your money, your voice and your vote.

Brands and governments have to respond because ultimately they exist because you voted for them in with your money or your vote. Public opinion is very powerful. Even in countries where the government is not so free, world public opinion have influenced the results. Brands can not prosper if we do not purchase their products. We have the power in our hands, if we use it together we can achieve whatever we want.

In the USA we had a boycott of Home Depot, a large chain of home improvement stores, to make them stop selling lumber from endangered hardwood trees. The result is that not only did Home Depot stop selling endangered hardwood but other home improvement store chains also stopped selling endangered hardwood. Why? Because the brands were responding to public opinion and consumer pressure. The consumers and investors spoke. That is all of us.

Statistics show that investors are placing a 12% premium in the UK for a socially responsible company and 30% more for one in Indonesia. Corporations and governments are waking up, they are realizing that when consumers and investors speak, they better listen.

No, it is not perfect yet, we have many cases of corruption and back room dealings in all countries; no country is immune to this. Our hope and encouragement is that we can see cases of where public opinion have made a difference when we work together. Together we can create a world that is sustainable and fair for everyone.

This is what the world needs now, a venue to gather in harmony and joy, to learn from each other, to share and to celebrate the good, and to work together to solve the challenges. The Forum is the dream of a dedicated group from Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain and the United Nations who saw the need for new ways of dealing with the challenges of the 21st Century. They have created a nonprofit organization, Universal Forum of Cultures to develop this ongoing global happening. The next Forum will be in 2007 in Monterrey, Mexico. Go now to Barcelona, Spain to see what the world is up to, have fun and participate in making a positive difference. www.barcelona2004us.org

Marilyn Tam is an influential corporate leader, speaker, consultant, author, respected philanthropist and social activist. www.HowToUseWhatYouveGot.com

Marilyn Tams book, How to Use What Youve Got to Get What You Want, receives an average 5-star rating from Amazon.com customers. In her book, Ms. Tam talks about how to discover your own inner North Star, and how to use it to navigate your efforts to achieve maximum personal success. The hardcover is just $14.00 on Amazon.com. Check it out! Click here