Most corporate brands (and most brands in general) would like be perceived as socially concerned in thought and action. A good percentage of those brands have walked the walk: They have made a difference perhaps by protecting the environment, helping the disadvantaged or changing eating habits. They deserve to be recognized for their values and efforts. Very few, however, are.

Efforts to communicate in advertising or in the press are usually ineffectual. Why does the brand get so little credit for meaningful programs? It is in part because there are so many brands that talk about such values, that none have credibility. This is due in part to the fact that the stories they tell aren’t compelling. But a few firms break through and do get credit from doing good.

The 11th annual brand equity study of some 1,000 brands in Japan has a CSR (corporate social responsibility) scale that provides some suggestive insights into how.

Tell a Social Concern Story

The top brand by a large margin was, as of last year, Toyota. Toyota has an impressive array of environmental initiatives involving plants, suppliers and show rooms, but these are nearly invisible. Their lofty social image comes from the Prius, a product that has held a dominate position in the hybrid subcategory which has come to represent its reduced omissions and gas consumption. It fact it can be called the exemplar of the subcategory. Unlike other hybrids, it’s also distinctive.

While the Ford Focus may or may not be a hybrid, the Prius has no such ambiguity. Panasonic is also in the top four brands along the CSR scale in part because of its spectrum of products and their common environmental position. They have the eco-solutions umbrella brand that includes a host of products, such as battery and solar cell energy sources, energy efficient appliances and energy management systems to optimize energy use in buildings. They have developed or participated in demonstration buildings and even cities, such as the Dalian Best City in China, to showcase their ideas and products. GE’s ecomagination plays a similar role.

Create Social Programs and Make Them Visible

Coke is actually in sixth place in large part because of its partnership with the world Wildlife Foundation, cancer groups and others. Because of its communication skills as a firm and its huge budget, it has made these partnerships come to life. Think of the polar bear story, for example. Think also of the Avon Walk for breast cancer and the Home Depot’s support of Habitat for Humanity. In each case, the connection represents a long-term association and is presented in an involving and memorable way.

Then there is the “good folks” connection. Certain organizations and its people have reputations for having the right values and always doing the right thing for employees, suppliers and customers. As a result, they enjoy a halo effect and the assumption is made that they are also strong on social issues and programs. HP used to have that image. In Japan, a huge contribution by Softbank toward Tsunami Relief vaulted them from 48th to third on the CSR scale list. Doing good things and having a cause or two can provide many benefits for a firm.

Enhancing the brand and the customer relationships will be one of them. But it will not happen by itself. There has to be substance, but substance is not enough. There needs to be a connection that is visible if not vivid, authentic, involving and part of an ongoing commitment — it cannot be seen as puffery without content or a short-term effort to gain attention and sales.

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