Social Cause and Company Date Gone Wrong?

It would appear that the romance between Cocal Cola and Save the Children has hit some troubled times. The match was a good one. With Coca Cola committed to “Live Positively”, and Save the Children committed to improving the lives of children, there was clearly a solid connection.

But where Save the Children wants to tackle childhood obesity and re-educate people that soda pop is a significant source of unnecessary sugar (and hence part of the complex set of conditions that creates obesity), that runs head on into Coca Cola’s core business. So while they may like each other very much, and, indeed, some of their dinner conversations are supportive and encouraging, it remains a serious rift. One could say, as my father often prounounces, that the “relationship is doomed before they even take the vows”.

Coca Cola has one of the most innovative and leader-like approaches to brining its social dimension to life, Coca Cola Live Positively. An excellent, and refreshing framework, and commitment, Live Positively brings coherence to the many activities Cocal Cola supports. Building bike trails across the USA; supporting academic scholarships; supporting Boys and Girls Clubs of America; supporting a number of environmental initaitives; and adding calorie information to the front of their packages – it is clear that Coca Cola supports making “the world we all live in a little bit better. Indeed, when asked over the past year or so what companies are doing “coroporate resopnsibliity” well, I have cited Coca Cola as one of the few companies that understands how to align their Brand and business with truly standing for something meaningful and relevant.

Their erstwhile dating partner – Save the Children – is equally committed. Operating for over 75 years, its mission in life is to “inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives.” Save the Children does outstanding work: responding to disaster and emergencies; programs in children protection, education and child development, HIV/AIDS, and health and education. The organization also sponsors global campaigns on serious issues. See Where the Good Goes is a campaign to mobilize people to help health workers around the work save more children. They also sponsor Rewrite the Future, a campaign to galvanize support for providing quality education to millions of children around the world, because, according to Save the Children, more than 75 million children are growing up without an education. And Save the Children has noteworthy partners that support them in their efforts: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; USAID and in Canada, CIDA; and a partnership with the luxury jeweller Bulgari, who has created an iconic co-branded ring with a percetage of proceeds going to the cause. Other corporate supporters are both Coca Cola and Pepsico. (Pepsico bestowed a $5million grant for work in India and Bangladesh.)

Social causes can create strange but effective partnerships. Coca Cola and Save the Children is one example; a global beverage company partnering with an organization devoted to quite literally, saving the children of the world. Together they could accomplish great things because both have a significant commitment to “living positively”.

Sadly, there is a “but”.

As part of their commitment to having a real impact on childhood obesity, Save the Children has been advocating for a tax on soda pop. This would serve obviously to make soda more expensive, and out of the reach of many households, and children. It would also serve to raise awareness of the issue – drinking sweetened drinks can be hazardous to your health. And we know from the long history of social change that high-impact change comes from the imposition of positive or negative incentives. In this case the approach is to install a punishment on consumption. If we are not smart enough to decrease consumption on our own, we will be punished into doing so.

And here is where the relationship has hit trouble. Notwithstanding the wide product portfolio of Coca Cola – which includes Minute Maid, Dasani water, Five Alive and PowerAde to name a few – a tax on soda pop is a threat to the business of Coca Cola.

So what’s a fellow to do? Stop dating the partner that can threaten his livelihood? Or does the potentially threatening partner change her ways?

You guessed correctly. Save the Children has backed down from its support of the soda tax. Paraphrased in a recent article in The New York Times (December 14, 2010) Carolyn Miles (COO of Save the Children) said that after much consideration the organization decided this approach was too controversial and did not fit with the way Save the Children works.

This is undoubtedly a blow to the effort to raise awareness of the dangers of soda consumption, and to try to decrease its consumption. It also highlights the debate on the approach – do “sin taxes” have the right effect? Should legislation move into the realm of individual food consumption? Currently no soda tax legislation has passed. Too controversial an approach; too difficult for us to stomach? Yet as we know, social change is typically driven by early extremist-type positions. (Although one could argue that the Save the Children and Coca Cola relationship reporting is good publicity for “the cause”.)

It is what this reveals about public-private partnerships that we need to address. We know that companies want to make a difference in order to repair, protect, improve their reputational equity and strengthen the emotional bonding people can have with them. They need the partnerships of cause organizations that have integrity and drive real action to achieve this. We know that cause organizations need the monies and band-width of large corporations to achieve their ambitions. Hence the effective dating game.

But successful dating needs an equitable balance of power. When one partner has the power to shut down the actions of the other, or impair the integrity of the other, or damage the business of the other a good match the two do not make.

So what then is the resolution, or solution?

I believe there are three important principles of engagement:
First, if companies truly want to cultivate reputations that we respect, and even adore, they will need to partner with entities who are involved in activities that may threaten their business. This demonstrates their truly genuine commitment to issues. It is also politically wise; keeping your “enemies” close to you is always wise long-term planning. And if indeed the threat to their business is real, then that is an indicator they need to be paying attention to – if they are interested in building an enduring business. In this instance then, if soda pop is potentially the “new tobacco” then Coca Cola might want to be part of the solution. Strong, high-integrity partners can be good sirens of the future.

Second, cause organizations might want to consider developing approaches in conjunction with their corporate partners that make it easier for them to be part of the solution. So rather than feeding the inherent antagonism, as prescient members of the community they could help lead corporations to better behaviour.

Third, if social issues do threaten our ability to “live positively” then we need to really understand that. If we are not a healthy, thriving public, that is perhaps the most serious threat to business. It will only be combinations of forces that can drive genuine social change. The conventional, often antagonistic divide between corporations and cause-defined entities need to be dismantled if we are going to have a real impact. We need, to borrow the language of Adam Smith, have a vision of the public good.