25.07.2020

Speculative Models for the Present

X:

Y:

P[04]Critical Firm

Location

London [UK]

Year

2016 - 2017

Team

Tomás Clavijo

Output

Article
System map

Looking at

Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate Political Action
Corporate Identity

Through the lense of

Cultural Studies
Cultural Branding
Network Society

In the context of

Brexit
2016 Trump’s presidential campaign
Black Live Matters protests

This investigative piece was developed over the course of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Ongoing Black Live Matters protests impulsed by the killing of George Floyd, the piece remains utterly relevant today and represents a line of investigation that we aim to keep developing in the future.

C[00]Outline

[01]
Ongoing, deep, systemic trust crises in western societies; the rise of ‘populist’ politics can be understood as a failure of corporate social responsibility – the hegemonic identity of the corporate establishment during the last two decades – to engage extensive sectors of a highly polarised population.

[02]
To reinstate trust among those sectors, the corporate world needs to perform a parallelism that offers symbolic resolutions to the ongoing societal tensions. A variety of alternative corporate identities should be at play.

[03]
In this context and in opposition to popular belief, the purposeful generation and management of conflict and the use of transparent political action can be combined as a strategy to generate trust and legitimacy among citizens, and a position of leadership for businesses who unapologetically embrace their political nature.

C[01]Context

Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does.

ELLE UK Director -The Guardian- (February, 2017)

On a media environment dominated by editorial lines concerning Post-truth and Post-factual Politics ; the exclusionary effects of the social media bubble; and the rise of populism as a threat to market stability; the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States precipitated a short trend towards the public politicisation of business organisations against his figure and particularly against his immigration ban act during the early months of 2017. An extensive list of companies including Patagonia, Starbucks, AirBnB, Uber or Lyft were involved in political commentary and activist campaigns through social media and others such as Nike, Heineken or Budweiser launched large scale politically charged commercial campaigns on TV. One day before, ‘the rise of branded activism’ was praised with messianic voice in a trends foresight article at fastcodesign.com” stating that as ‘a reflection of the changing political tides, many brands [would] evolve from mission-driven to activist’ and ‘finally stop trying to trick [us]’ (Co.design, 2017).

C[02]The Making of Corporate Identity

The development of corporate identity takes place in cyclical processes as a consequence of systemic identity conflicts.

Changes in corporate identity can be stimulated by external pressures as interpreted by corporate managers. Divergences between the corporate identity and the desirable organizational identity as perceived by external parties such as citizens or governments lead to ‘identity dissonances’. When this phenomenon arises, managerial responses search to restore consistency. Top manager’s ability to construct and sustain a corporate identity discourse depends on two main factors: mobilization and legitimacy. Mobilization denotes ‘the development of collective consciousness and the energizing of action. Firm mobilization capabilities help sustain the managerial identity. The counter-mobilization capabilities of other interest groups that are opposed to a particular identity compromise it. Legitimacy denotes ‘a condition of positive valuation and acceptance enjoyed by persons in positions of power, and by the organizations through which that power is exercised. Legitimacy crises define situations in which individuals or organizations in power are unable to meet social expectations. Corporate identity is used as a claim for legitimacy for the organization. Any proposed identity can only gain legitimacy when it is embedded in a discourse that relates sympathetically to the wider context.

C[03]Branded Activism as Cultural Strategy

Branded activism falls within the domains of ‘cultural strategy’ long-time promoted by branding guru Douglas B.Holt.

In his article, ‘Branding in the age of Social Media’ (Harvard Business Review, 2016) Holt points out how the democratisation of cultural production through social networks has relegated brands to a secondary role in favour of crowd culture. As a recipe, he encourages brands to adopt the role of amplifiers of cultural movements in order to remain relevant. The cultural branding strategy promoted by Holt is not new. He has been retroactively explained ‘How Brands Become Icons’ (2004) during the second half of the 20th century by offering symbolic resolution to the tensions, contradictions and paradoxes emerging between people’s inherited ideologies and their direct experience of the world.

Using this theoretical framework we developed a comparative exercise to showcase how the same ideology can be reinterpreted through different identity myths, in different populist worlds, and with different practices and language in order to seduce different target audiences.

C[04]Corporate Social Responsibility as Political Identity

Through a process of strategic interactions in the aim of legitimacy; corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown as the dominant discourse of corporate political identity in the 21st century. Concepts such as ‘branded activism’ or ‘mission driven business’ can be classified as subcultures of CSR or progressive steps in the path of responsibilisation as much as subcategories of cultural branding. However, it is relevant to acknowledge that CSR, the intended CPI of most organizations is failing in its claims for legitimacy among extensive sectors of the population.

Reasons include:

[01] The parallel increase of inequality

[02] The concerns about the blurring of private and public.

[03] The issue-driven nature of responsibilisation.

[04] The non-structural character of measures.

[05] The non-disclosure of lobbying positions and activities.

[06] The insistence on an apolitical treatment.

C[05]The Aesthetics of Responsibility

A cultural branding perspective of CSR also reveals an issue of identity. In its aim to match an idealized hegemonic identity, the business world is failing to offer a symbolic parallelism to extensive sectors of a population that is politicized, highly polarized, and skeptical. While the short wave of branded activism has opportunistically, an maybe unintendedly, broken the -business don’t talk politics- mantra aiming to seduce alternative markets, it has failed to legitimize that step.

What are the drivers of legitimacy among the sectors of the population who do not engage with CSR? Who succeeded in their mobilisation?

Populism did.

C[06]Markets of Discontent

Responsibility is a failing signifier to engage those who feel angry. Identity is not enough for those who feel betrayed.

Populist narratives do not represent a menace to the corporate establishment because they are demagogic, they represent a menace because they have been successful in mobilising people. And they have been successful in mobilising people because they are aligned and explicitly verbalise already existing feelings and incipient desires of extensive sectors of the population; that the corporate world is at the very centre of political decision making, and is responsible for the politico-economic devenir of the last decades; and there is an incipient desire of rebellion against it.

C[07]Logics of Contestation

To reinstate trust, Business needs to target Business.

If logics of collaboration are the drivers of legitimacy for CSR among extensive sectors of the population, logics of contestation, particularly against the corporate world, are the drivers of legitimacy among others. A corporate identity targeting these markets and presenting an alternative to CSR should utilise those drivers. In order to deploy successful activist strategies that legitimise them among sceptics, business needs to target business and offer a symbolic resolution to the ongoing societal tensions where they belong in people’s mind, the corporate world. An anti-corporate corporation sounds like a big paradox. Trump presenting himself as an anti-establishment candidate was directly a joke, but far from diminishing his attractive among his followers, the explicit attack of the establishment legitimised his positioning. Navigating paradoxes has become one of the most important skills in contemporary informational societies. Today, in opposition to popular belief, the purposeful generation and management of conflict can be used as a strategy to generate trust and legitimacy among citizens, and ultimately, a position of leadership for businesses who unapologetically embrace their political nature.

C[08]Business is not the Enemy

Till this moment this article has only allocated an opportunity within the domains of identity. The actions and practises that accompany alternative corporate identities are not predetermined.  It’s the mission of activist and social movements to use this corporate need as an opportunity to couple alternative corporate political identities with alternative political practises as well. The development of activist business strategies, requires the understanding of the dynamics and mechanisms of Corporate Political Action (CPA), but most importantly the will of both, corporates and activist, to engage in sincere collaboration. This is not a given. Why? The business community is the most powerful interest group in society and, above a certain scale, business is politics. Corporate political action occurs whether there is a legal mechanism or not but the political nature of business is a controversial issue. While companies have traditionally and intentionally chosen to exercise political activity opaquely; activist and other interest groups do not recognise the legitimacy of business as a political constituent. While competing for technological disruption and efficiency in its business models, the corporate community has traditionally refused the task of cultural and political criticism, relegating it to other actors. Taking these two insights in consideration, the traditional positioning activist vs. business does not seem the most efficient way to achieve political change.

Activist should aim to leverage the political power of certain business against others. But how?

C[10] A System Map of Corporate Political Action

In this framework the firm takes the central position in a hierarchised system of market and non-market actors upon which it can exert influence and agency. On the top of this hierarchy national and supranational institutions, both political and economical. The former ones with the capabilities to set the legal framework and the latter ones with the capabilities to set the financial framework. In the intermediate level market and non-market organizations and interest groups. The firm and the other groups situated in the mid-level of the map share the same capabilities of influence and agency, and competition among each other, the citizens and the government than before. In the lower level, non-organized citizens in all its possible roles. Apart from the democratic vote and consumption patterns the abilities of this group to intentionally influence the behaviour of organized groups is limited.

As some of the mechanisms to exercise relationships of agency and influence among actors have evolved into professional disciplines, and to make those channels explicitly visible, the system map confers these actors a special role as intermediaries. These actors are distributed as follows:

 

  • In between interest groups and governments 

Lobbies, lawyers, Pac committees, …

[These interactions are regulated by economic and legal mechanisms]

 

  • In between interest groups and financial institutions

Debt, ownership, interlocking directorates, …

[These interactions are regulated by economic and legal mechanisms ]

 

  • In Between interest groups and non-organized individuals

Media, marketing, branding, …

[These interactions are regulated by symbolic mechanisms]

 

Finally, the internal power dynamics of the firm have been represented through the existence of several interest groups within the firm.

C[10] Counter-Hegemonic Business Strategy

Social movements and activist have limited legal and economic resources to influence politics. However, particularly in times of social instability like these days, they have high symbolic 

capabilities to mobilize the public. These capabilities should be used as a legitimizing tool in favour of the partnered ‘critical firms’ that, in exchange would provide access or collaborative use of their political resources (lobbying, lawyers, PAC Donations, network, media links…) By defining a clear hegemonic undesired political practice, social movements and critical firms should define clear corporate antagonist. This serves to present the partnered ‘critical firm’ as a legitimate ‘anti-corporate’ actor that fosters a counter-hegemonic political practice.This kind of strategic collaboration is imported from what CSR practice has done before; however, the explicitly political treatment of the issue and the clear strategy of conflict should generate a different outcome.

C11The ‘Counter-Hegemonic’ Political Environment.

In this scenario, the impact of a particular policy is widespread and affects a variety of interest groups and society as a whole. The industry tends to act as a whole through trade and employer’s unions. In order to reach the new level, the ‘critical firm’ can then intentionally acts against the hegemonic industry practice and its immediate perceived interest, so as to strengthen its ties with alternative stakeholder and interest groups that legitimate the firm among the public opinion. This favours the competitive advantage of the firm in detriment of its competitors. If the success of the ‘critical/counter hegemonic’ firm is widespread, others might progressively follow in its positioning. Tactic movements by activist and critical firms should be addressed towards the consecution of this scenario.

C[12] The Future Framework of CPA

Political capabilities of business by far exceeds the participation on existing structures of partisan support. Technology, and by extension the actors funding and managing technological processes of change, both corporate and non-corporate are already shaping the systems and structures that will replace the actual mechanisms of political action. 

 

The way services, networks, data, infrastructure or credit work influences the way life is organised in the planet in a far more pervasive way than punctual participation in a political process, it is politics in its own right. Is there any bigger menace to the financial establishment than the blockchain? Does any technology compromises not only the role media but the state itself more than digital platforms? Aren’t competing companies offering competing vision of the future already? Maybe the future of CPA is less about partisan support and more about overcoming partisan politics. 

 

Maybe the real value of activist CPA is less in the support of one particular policy or candidate and more in making the processes of political construction visible and understandable.

 

The idea that social movements and business firms could develop shared political projects and that those firms could get a competitive advantage for allowing it defies traditional perceptions and requires attitudinal changes in the attitudes of both actors. Would this represent a successful strategy of social movements to influence the behaviours of the corporate world? Or the commodification of critique and activism for economic exploitation? 

 

Probably both, but it is precisely this ambivalence which suggest the emergent potential of the proposal. 

 

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