by: Jennifer Rice

I'd like to elaborate on this morning's post on Worthwhile brands, ask a lot of questions, and then open this up for discussion.

My earlier post discussed some initial ideas for defining a worthwhile brand: does it measurably improve quality of life, make the world a better place, or leave no trace on the Earth? But of course nothing is so black or white. I'm trying to find the line between worthwhile and the rest, and it's pretty damn hard.

I'm going to ramble a bit, so bear with me. First I started thinking about brands that are the opposite of worthwhile: cigarette brands, perhaps, or gambling (but of course smokers and gamblers would disagree with me.) Then there are the irrelevant brands, those running 10th or 20th in their categories with marginal points of difference, doing no harm but contributing to the clutter (I'll come back to this one in another post.) And finally there are good brands -- plenty of them -- that don't make my original Worthwhile cut but they're part of our lives.

The brand that I've thought a lot about is Apple. By all traditional accounts, Apple is a great brand... probably one of the best. But are they worthwhile? According to whom? Objectively speaking, they make computers and music players with an original spin. How does that benefit the world? I think that purists would say: they're not following sustainable business practices or giving to charity, and therefore they don't qualify. But are sustainability and charity the only two ways to create a brand that makes a positive impact on the world?

I think not. And yet there's a danger in opening the criteria too wide; too many marketing and advertising folks latch on to words like "meaningful" and "purpose" and "passion" and dilute their true meanings. I think it's time to raise the bar. But where to raise it, and which brands to exclude? Ahh, now things get tricky. What is the difference between good and great? Between great and worthwhile (ie. making positive contributions to individuals, society and/or our planet)? How is "positive contribution" defined?

Back to Apple. One could say that without Apple, this world would be rather dreary. Many people can't imagine life without their Apple computer or their iPod. It's their form of self-expression, and there isn't a comparable alternative. Does this qualify as a worthwhile and positive contribution? I could argue both sides. And Apple's a member of the coveted club called "cult brands:" Harley Davidson, Ikea, eBay, and the list goes on. These are the guys everyone's striving to be like, right? But do passionate customers make a brand Worthwhile? Not necessarily... but again, where do you draw the line?

Lastly, while I like the term 'worthwhile' because it hasn't been completely diluted from marketing-speak, I feel a bit bad for the good companies excluded by my definition. Does that imply they're worthless? Not my intention, but it could come across that way.   

I could keep rambling but I'll stop. I haven't come to any conclusions yet, and I'd love to hear from you.

UPDATE:  I do want to clarify that I'm trying to broaden the perspective from "corporate responsibility." I believe that corporate responsibility is vitally important (Brandchannel has a great article on it). However, I'm not a fan of the word "responsibility" because it sounds like a chore, and I think its definition leaves a lot of beneficial businesses out. For example, a number of large tech companies are trying to solve the digital-divide challenge in emerging markets. They're starting to create a virtuous circle where everyone wins (including themselves, of course). And  when companies initiate sustainable business practices, everyone wins too. No corporate action is completely altruistic, but I think there are plenty of opportunities for brands to think more creatively about how to benefit more people than themselves. This is what I'm terming a worthwhile brand... but it's broader and harder to define than corporate responsibility.   

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