Companies as Cultural Architects – Who’s Accountable?

Environmental and human rights activists are increasingly demanding that companies be responsible actors in a myriad of ways, from eradicating conflict minerals in their supply chains, to paying workers a fair wage, to using less toxic materials in apparel or other products. Activist campaigns have become much more sophisticated over the past few decades as well; instead of campaigns solely based on environmental and human rights impacts, activists are now targeting companies for how they wield their influence, and for their public stance on issues. In essence, a company’s impact on society – or even a company’s impact on culture – is increasingly transparent and is therefore more likely to be questioned.

A quick Google search for “how do companies affect culture” yields results on how to influence corporate culture, how a company’s corporate culture can influence its profitability, you name it. What’s not as readily examined is how a company –through its products, ethics and business choices as a brand – affects our wider cultural values, norms and ethics. What are the imprints made by the very companies whose products populate our daily lives, with which we have a personal relationship – your favorite ice cream, shoes, or shampoo – and how do those imprints dictate our culture? Can you imagine a world unchanged by Coca-Cola, Apple or Twitter?

In a post-Citizens United world, where companies enjoy voting power akin to a human being, their cumulative influence has grown to an extreme we’ve yet to fully comprehend. This questionable authority over politics – and culture – demands a responsible approach, and that approach is something activists are beginning to demand more and more.

Companies: The New Storytellers

Corporate marketing campaigns impact how we define gender roles, what people think is beautiful (and how that makes us feel), how seriously people take climate change, as well as what we think we want and need on a daily basis. These subtle – and often subconscious – thoughts, desires and priorities in turn affect our values, which then impact our behavior.

As culture is most generally defined as “learned and shared behavior,” that means global brands have a huge role in creating and maintaining culture to fit their bottom line objectives, but also in fostering an atmosphere where their brand is highly regarded – even admired and loved. In short, it’s in a company’s best interest to understand and respond to what the consumer wants on a level that is both genuine and resonates, but also to be ahead of the curve when it comes to smart innovation and market drivers.

In today’s hyper-connected, hyper-consumptive society, corporations are becoming the most successful facilitators of brand messaging and culture creation, using everything from targeted social media campaigns to native advertising to sell a product, or to get a point across. Marketing has gone far beyond simply advertising a product to the role of “storytelling,” with the objectives of “engaging customers, creating brand believers and gaining fans for everything [companies] sell.” It used to be that humans would engage each other around a fire, each sharing stories of the gods to create believers and fans and illustrate the behaviors that that particular culture believed should be emulated or avoided. Now these stories are told by cleverly orchestrated marketing campaigns.

For example, Facebook, ubiquitous to most peoples’ daily lives, has admitted to manipulating its users’ emotions for, ahem – science – and gives users an extremely filtered “bubble” of information and advertisements based on what Facebook deems the user wants to see. In essence, you’re preaching to the choir – namely yourself. And it’s not just Facebook. This algorithmic approach has far-reaching implications on what we see and think, and limits information to a select – and reinforced – like-minded few. While many people assume they make rational decisions based on facts and figures, countless research has shown that not only are humans far more irrational than they think, their decision-making is far more malleable and open to influence than they wish to believe.

The Ethics of Influence: Beyond Regulation

If companies have so much control over our cultural values and norms, to what ethical standards are they being held? And are there any solid standards to begin with? Beyond governmental regulation, how much should soda companies take responsibility for the correlation of higher diabetes rates and increased consumption of their product? Should oil companies take responsibility for the impact of fueling climate science denial?

Social activism, which has evolved to play the role of enforcing corporate checks and balances, shines the light on questionable corporate practices and demands answers to questions like these. It’s not that far of a leap to think that activist campaigns, often an effective approach to holding corporations accountable, will soon more deliberately target the very values and cultural norms created by companies, and in turn pressure them to be more responsible in how their company impacts culture.

Activist campaigners are increasingly demanding that companies take a public stand on everything from providing same-sex partner benefits to not supporting a climate-denying lobbying group. The next step in corporate social responsibility: to positively differentiate by taking responsibility for cultural impacts. The truly innovative company understands that it’s not just about the bottom line or a glossy CSR report – when it comes to companies as architects of culture, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

“Previous generations enjoyed a clear-cut approach to determining right from wrong, relying on the traditional institutions of church and state for guidance. But for young people today, these mainstays have lost much of their relevance and significance. Faced with an ever more complex landscape of choices, causes, and issues, young people no longer turn to the established sources for direction; instead they are increasingly turning to brands. Companies are stepping up…providing the information consumers crave and motivating them to make better choices.” ~The Cassandra Good Guide