Simon Mainwaring, former creative director for Nike at Weiden & Kennedy, is a man with thoughtful and interesting views on brands and marketing.  So when I was offered a copy of his book, We First:  How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, I was intrigued.  My curiosity was well-rewarded.

A Bold, New Vision

We First is a call to arms for brand marketers and corporate leaders to envision brands as more than a company asset, or even as a construct owned jointly with consumers.  Mainwaring challenges businesses to think of brands as potential world changers that partner with consumers, governments, and NGO’s to tackle social injustice and environmental issues.  Mainwaring advocates for a time when the very purpose of business is transformed to “purpose on a massive scale.”

“Although most of the world’s major corporations have adopted some form of CSR, truly purposeful business practices remain largely on the sidelines. Purpose must be reconceived as a driver of profit in corporate decision making, not as an afterthought.  It must infuse the entire organization from top to bottom with consistent, vertical alignment.  By extension, boards of directors, executives, and investors need to rethink the greater potential value they can get from long-term contributions toward making a better world against their limited, short-term profits.” [P. 58]

Economist Milton Friedman (an antithesis invoked at several points) is no doubt rolling in his grave at the idea that businesses have purposes beyond returning profits to shareholders, a point of view Mainwaring views as the equivalent of “believing corporations should serve solely as personal wealth generators.”

Beyond CSR:  Brands as Nations

Mainwaring’s new vision of business goes beyond the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).   Cause marketing, philanthropy, sponsorships, and other CSR efforts are described — then dismissed — as “enlightened self-interest,” “‘scattershot,” or “window dressing” reactions to corporate scandals.  CSR efforts are said to fall short and “operate with many deficiencies.”  Mainwaring even questions the sincerity of many CSR efforts.  He asks whether, if not for the transparency created by the “steady and committed actions of citizens and consumers, one might wonder if corporations would have embraced consciousness of their social responsibility at all?”

Mainwaring says that ultimately corporations should strive to recognize the relationship between the free market and common good and act accordingly.  Brand nations actively search for ways to further their environmental and social interests as well as their economic ones.  In this future state, corporations act as ‘global citizens’ partnering with governments, consumers, and NGO’s to solve problems that are too severe and “too big for any single company or nation to manage alone.”   In this way, corporations serve as an essential “third pillar.”

As corporations adopt this partnering mindset, he believes they will behave in different ways, passing through seven stages of evolution to become a “Brand Nation,” which is described as follows:

“[As a brand nation,] the company has a long-term vision of a better world that it seeks to bring into fruition.  It does not respond to shareholders who clamor for bigger short-term profits because it puts the general good of the planet and all stakeholders above their myopic demands.  The company’s brand forms a virtuous ecosystem that brings in strong revenues that provide shareholders with substantial returns.  Its brand nation of consumers forms a synaptic network that is always communicating in support of not only its products but also its spirit and character, which becomes meaningful in their lives.  The company’s consumers are its biggest fans, more than willing to offer feedback, advice, and ideas for innovations. They want to see the company succeed because the brand is integral to the sustainability of capitalism and the well-being of the planet.”
[P. 146]

We First holds up Pepsi, Starbucks, Nike, Coca-Cola, Seventh Generation, Unilever and Ford as brands that have learned to harness social media to collaborate with consumers as partners to further their corporate interests as well as be more socially responsible.  However, the epitomes of brand nationhood are Facebook and, especially, Google.  When Google announced it would shut down its censored online service in China in 2010, it was articulating a “foreign policy for the digital age,” ahead of many countries.

Mainwaring is not satisfied that this transformation will occur fast enough if left to its own course.  He also believes that the move toward social responsibility will need to be voluntary and sincere or it will fail.  He cites, as evidence, the findings of a powerful McKinsey study commissioned by an association of CEO’s founded by Paul Newman.  The report describes four possible scenarios of which only the voluntary scenario is effective.  The others fail due to mismatched expectations on the part of consumers, mismatched expectations forcing government regulation, and increased expense.

The Moral Case for Contributing to a Better World

I found this well researched book compelling reading.  While We First occasionally indulges in diatribes on the evils of capitalism and can be fairly one-sided at times, Mainwaring generally succeeds at convincing the reader that a significant change toward a new model is desirable, already underway, and nearly inevitable as a result of two forces:  social media and the propensity of two significant consumer groups, “Moms” and “Millennials,” who prefer doing business with responsible companies.  These “citizen consumers” are pushing companies to behave more collaboratively, purposefully, transparently, and accountably.

Perhaps the book’s biggest contribution is to escalate our current generalized sense of ethical responsibility and give it a moral imperative.  In Mainwaring’s view, we don’t really have a choice; if corporations don’t start thinking of themselves as global citizens, we could be on our way to becoming the latest “Easter Island” catastrophe.

I applaud the book for its proactiveness and for urging us to think harder about the role brands should play in bringing about a better world.  Though they may ultimately be right, I am not confident these ideas will resonate with CEO’s, who are not generally in a position to ignore shareholder imperatives and strike out in new ways.  For better or worse, the self-interest of capitalism is still the reality of business today.  Perhaps “enlightened self interest” is at least better than the alternative?

I expect to turn to We First often as an inspirational resource.  It catalogs many powerful examples where companies, partnering with consumers, have started to make a difference.  The end notes are very detailed and the appendix provides a great list of links, starting with Aflac and ending in Zappos.  While most of these examples are already familiar, it is nice to have them all in one place.


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