March 30, 2009

Branding Social Responsibility

cvs-van ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
On the way to work one morning I saw a large white van parked on the side of the highway assisting a stalled, sad car. As I drove by I read on the side of the van in big red letters, “CVS/Samaritan.” Having never heard of this I was eager to investigate what kind of service this was? Is there a fee or a helpline?

CVS/Samaritan has been around since 1978 but it is limited to a few cities: Chicago, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis, Providence, and Washington DC. CVS hired Samaritania, Inc., a private company in Massachusetts, to design, build, and run the CVS/Samaritan bus program. The CVS/Samaritan vans are staffed by drivers who are certified in many areas, including auto mechanics, medicine, and animal control. CVS/Samaritans cannot be summoned but will stop when they randomly come upon an accident or a car stopped on the side of the road. It’s unclear if the name CVS/Samaritan represents the joint venture of both CVS and Samaritania or if the word “Samaritan” serves as a social responsible brand extension for CVS.

Regardless of how the name came to be, the addition of the word Samaritan to the CVS brand relays a
clear message. But is CVS really being altruistic? Altruism is to act for the sole benefit of others and the sacrifice of self-interest. However, even I, a passer-by at 65 mph, could see the good work was by CVS not just a random citizen; therefore CVS gets all the credit for the good work and their brand gets positive exposure to a greater market of potential customers. Witnesses of the Samaritan van could choose to either continue supporting CVS or start supporting CVS for the sole reason that CVS is associated with this good cause.

Corporate social responsibility or the question of what businesses are responsible for has been debated for many years. Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize winning economist, argued that the most socially responsible thing for businesses to do is to use their resources to increase their profits. I take this argument to mean that if the business is doing well then people are employed and the benefits will extrapolate into the community.

Another view is that with prosperity comes responsibility to give back. Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, termed this view “creative capitalism” at last years’ World Economic Forum. Gates defined creative capitalism as, “an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.”

The fact that brands benefit from gaining exposure and associations with non-profits and pro-social programs does not bother me. The businesses gains do not detract from the good provided. In fact, as a result of researching for this piece I’ve been asking myself why I support particular brands or companies. I buy organic (when possible) to reduce the pesticides and other chemicals I ingest. I buy local (again, when possible) to support my local farmers and thus the local economy. And now I will look to support brands (when possible) that pay it forward.

Contributed by Evelyn Chapin

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