Brand Aid: why the world's 100 biggest brands should form a trillion-dollar humanity fund

In 1984 Bob Geldof launched Band Aid. It brought together an unprecedented number of the world’s most famous artists to produce a record that made tens of millions of dollars across the world, enough to save millions of people in Ethiopia from starvation.

Today, the companies on the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most valuable brands together comprise a staggering $5,713bn in revenue and an additional combined brand value of $2,198bn. If they were to launch a joint venture – let’s call it “Brand Aid” – it would create an unprecedented fund, one so vast and powerful it would be capable of putting an end to any and every miserable problem on Earth we care to tackle. And since all brands in the world are already trying their best to be or become purposeful, there is no better time than the present.

True purpose

No, I’m not an idealist. I know that it will take a miracle to make this plan happen. I can already hear the concerned if not outraged cries of shareholders and stockholders at the thought, at even the remotest possibility that some of their chief executives will start to like to the idea. I’m sorry to break it to them, but some of those CEOs just might be more interested than mere liking.

Look at the most purposeful brands in the world. Recognise any brands there from the Forbes list? There is reason enough to assume that this list largely corresponds to the Forbes list. Brands with true purpose do better than brands that are still putting everything into raising stockholder value. Purposeful brands will win in the end and in fact are already winning out over traditional brands.

“Purpose” is not a fashionable trend, to be replaced by something else next year. It’s no coincidence that it parallels the decline in consumers’ belief in traditional advertising – they may still watch a lot of it on television, but when it comes to buying stuff, they increasingly prefer authentic, meaningful and socially responsible brands. You also see it with the talent, young and old. One day they simply decide to move on, walking away from well-paid jobs and company cars to find new organisations that jive with their own sense of purpose in life. No, purpose is not a trend; it is here to stay. And no, we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with it together.

New belief

Chaos is the word that best describes the state of the world now: insecure, polarised, hard to grasp for a growing number of people. Looming climate change, the seemingly uncontrollable problems with migration, new political “cold war” tensions on the rise – in times like these, ordinary people feel they mere pawns in a chess game being played way over their heads. The sudden rise of the “yellow vest” movement in France is a clear sign of the angry mood that is smoldering inside people who used to be part of the average middle class, but now find themselves going under, neglected by elite governments and eyed as data by big businesses.

This chaos motivates people to strike back, and one option they still have is not buying brands they feel are just out to get their money. Brands that don’t care if production is polluting the planet or packaging is becoming plastic soup and killing our oceans. Or brands that go about their business as usual, totally indifferent to what people or communities feel could or should be done to help the world forward. Instead they are on the lookout for brands and businesses that truly take them and the world around them seriously and are visibly going out of their way to do something about things that need a helping hand.

Being accountable

People are judging brands by their behaviour, their actions and their views on society. This is something new, as many brands have already discovered the hard way. Brands are expected to be transparent in their actions and to follow through on commitments to society. There is no place to hide; those who start out on the wrong foot are quickly found out and ridiculed on social media. Brands that surprise and amaze people by doing well for society, customers or the planet will be hailed as heroes on those same social media. Those in between peter out. In this respect, it’s a do or die world for brands.

The best thing that the most valuable and purposeful brands can do is to take a page out of Nike’s book and just do it. Get together, sit together as CEOs and marketers, bring in stakeholders and stockholders, shake hands and agree on what politicians around the world can’t seem to. Think of the staggering sum they could bring together. Will a trillion-dollar fund do? That is an unbelievable amount of money, but if you look at their combined revenues and brand value, there must be room to create something on that order.

This would be the biggest thing since the Marshall Plan. It would create a media frenzy – mainstream and social – that could easily last a year, and it is hard to imagine all the branding possibilities a “Brand Aid Fund” could offer to all those involved. There is little danger of its being seen as a great big PR-stunt, because the commitment of every partnering brand would be on public display across the entire media spectrum.

All of the Brand Aid Fund’s actions and results would be reported every step of the way. All participating brands could fly a Brand Aid Fund icon and create their own Brand Aid Fund campaigns and promotions. All brands would enhance their reputation as socially responsible brands and companies. And all those brands’ chief executives coming together for a historic photograph would be something memorable too. (Think of the Solvay Conference in Brussels, when all the brightest stars of science that would change the world forever – among them Albert Einstein – paused to pose for the camera.)

Doing the right thing

Of course, it’s just an idea, a strange plan that comes with an endless list of buts and unsolvable questions. It would probably count as the most difficult venture ever undertaken in the history of branding. There will be too many contrary beliefs and interests, too many levels of working together and questions about who’s chipping in how much and whose rights are involved and who’s going to keep an eye on such an incredible amount of money. And so on and so forth. So don’t hold your breath.

The fact remains, however, that there has been a shift in mentality among individual brands that might well spill over into this bigger, crazier plan. Brand management is not crazy, chief executives are not crazy, consumers are not crazy: we all know that, or at least feel that we have arrived at some kind of watershed moment that demands action on a stupendous scale – otherwise we risk plummeting into the abyss. Not to sound too apocalyptic, but it’s not pretty out there. And let’s face it: we don’t see many political leaders with the courage to throw over the machine for the greater good of the people of this planet.

Now, I know many big-brand chief executives around the world and I for one am convinced that they do have the leadership needed to take on the planet’s biggest challenges and solve the world’s biggest problems. Not just with money, but with the efforts of their own brands to do well for people, society, communities and nature. So many brands are already showing their goodwill and acting on every conceivable level. So many brands around the world are changing their ways in terms of production and pollution, or in ways of helping whole communities: socially, culturally and economically.

They do it not because the financial department has done a survey and figured out that investing X in environmental improvement will earn them Z in added likeability and improved sales; no, they do it because the world’s best brands are led by people who approach the world as human beings – who think of their children and grandchildren, as we do – and they allow this fundamental concern drive the they operate their brands and businesses. Opportunistic behaviour will always be with us, but it is becoming scarcer than you think.

Brand leadership is shifting toward doing the right thing: environmentally, socially, economically, financially, morally. We’re seeing a different generation that’s not driven solely by greed or personal wealth, although it might still take some convincing for others to believe it. Which, by the way, will also be a great side effect for brand leaders, who will be seen partnering with each other for the greater good. An initiative like the Brand Aid Fund is too big and too public to be written off as just another opportunistic business venture aimed at polishing corporate egos.

Bringing together the best of the best

So many brands and companies are already contributing actively to the good of the world. Doing good means doing well, in that respect. But since most of these efforts are undertaken by individual brands, they will never have the impact of what might happen when 100 of the world’s best brands get together and roll up their sleeves. Because the best brands in the world didn’t get to be the best brands in the world without being the best in setting strategies to achieve set targets and goals.

No organisations on earth are as powerful and decisive as those behind its best brands. No amount of endless climate talks or new pacts can tackle the issues we face today, so why not try decisive, businesslike, hands-on, creative, result-driven action plans powered by brand professionals who have spent the whole of their professional lives launching successful initiatives? Whichever way Brand Aid is organised, it should feel like we’re seeing the birth of a giant startup, manned by people who know how to make things happen.

Its joint strength and effectiveness will be enormous, because it will be run like a brand, financially and structurally. It will be set up to work a strategy that eliminates anything standing in the way of the survival our planet and its people. Brand Aid will be a company as well as a brand with a strategy dedicated to solving the things we need solved. Its products will be creativity and innovative ideas, and its logistical power will make them work in all the right places. Suddenly the dollars many individual brands were spending on social, environmental and charitable support would become 100 times more effective. The impact on the world – and on the brands themselves – would be that much more meaningful for everyone.

Where to start

What would it take to launch a challenge of this magnitude? Maybe it’s better to ask the question: who would it take to start this? Which chief executives and which boards of directors are brave enough to at least put it on their agenda, even just as an idea to tinker with? Who will take the lead? Who will be in charge? Who will decide which issues to target first? Who will look after the spending of funds? How will Brand Aid work with NGOs, scientists, the UN and other institutions that may be able to chip in? Most of all: how can we prevent Brand Aid from turning into a quagmire of talks and discussions, paper shuffling and commissions? How do we keep it from getting stuck in the mud like so many other well-meaning initiatives that have gone before?

It doesn’t take a genius to see the obstacles to getting Brand Aid off the ground, or even getting it on the agenda of the chief executives behind the brands. But why should that be a reason not to at least think about it? Every endeavour has to start somewhere, so here a few pointers. As overly positive they may look, they might actually lead to something great.

1. Share this article so that it might reach any chief executive of one of the 100 most successful brands

Simple enough, because if the world’s best decision makers don’t know about it, they won’t have a chance to think about it. Brand Aid will not get off the ground without the support and courage of their leadership.

2. Set the agenda, CEOs

Once the seed of this idea has reached your desk, at least ask your board to treat it as an intellectual challenge. Mull it over personally, then pick up the phone and call your best CEO friends and colleagues to talk about it. “Brand Aid, it does have an interesting ring to it, what do you say, shall we get together to give it a whirl?”

3. Shape a plan within your peer group

If top-level decision makers show early signs of support, put heads together about Brand Aid. Shape your thoughts into a rough outline to see if they have some semblance of feasibility. If so, bring your plan to the attention of a wider circle of stakeholders.

4. Turn your dream plan into a business plan

A hypothetical new business, the Brand Aid Corporation, with a clear mission and clear outline about financing, operational structure, goals, means, KPIs and anything else that would spark the interest of stakeholders and other interested parties.

5. Select the people who will run Brand Aid

People who would commit; people who see the sense of the initiative. Business people, CEO’ or ex-CEOs who know what to do to get it up and running. Men and women who understand and cherish the idea, who are capable of forming this incredible, historic bond between the biggest and best brands in the world at a time when the world needs it most.

6. Bring the world aid community on board

Enlist aid professionals from the biggest and best NGOs, invite the scientific world and the head of UNHCR, present the plan and outline the role they could play in the bigger picture.

7. Share the plan among the databases of all those brands

Share the plan with those your brands already care for: the hundreds of millions of customers. Outline the targets; show what’s in store and how they could participate if they wanted to. Get them interested, get them on board, let them feel they are an early part of this incredible venture.

8. Appoint ambassadors worldwide

Get the brightest stars on board – the celebrities your brands already sponsor on social media and all the new faces that could add extra value – and reach out worldwide. Make them the frontline of this amazing new enterprise and get their fans involved.

9. Market your mission and get the campaign in place

The 100 most successful brands joining forces to solve the world’s most pressing issues: now that’s a story! The hashtag #brandaid will be trending from the moment the first word hits the media.

10. Celebrate the start of Brand Aid with the best Band Aid Concert ever

A 24-hour livestream from stages from around the world, the biggest and best bands and singers of this moment, from pop to classic. And now it’s not just the bands bringing the world together, but the brands we know so well. Brand Aid Day could easily become history’s biggest and most successful crowdfunding campaign ever. And hopefully the longest running. The future could be so bright.

Brands making history

It has never been done before, but the timing is right. Who knows – it might trigger political elites around the world to bury some hatchets and start agreeing on things. When 100 of the most famous brands on earth decide to pull together, who knows what kind of movement they might inspire. We know that companies that live by their purpose lead movements, not just in an idealistic sort of way, but also in commercially interesting ways.

The new type of leadership we see developing around us now does not just come from idealistic points of views. It has also been born out of the feeling and researched knowledge that doing things more responsibly will create business opportunities and future growth. It is a market-driven response; consumers have shifted: they want honesty and integrity, and they applaud and reward businesses that live up to or exceed their expectations. As a brand leader or a chief executive, you’d be mad to ignore that message. Besides: how many chances does a human being get to write history?

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group

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