Anne Bahr Thompson on the power of “brand citizenship”: An interview by Bob Morris

Anne Bahr Thompson has been inspiring business leaders to use their brands as a motivating force for change for many years. At the start of the Millennium, she began to identify how people’s connections to companies were turning upside down, before any others noticed its import. Having more than 25 years experience as a global brand strategist, she is also an accomplished researcher, writer and speaker, and the pioneer of the strategic framework of Brand Citizenship®.

A former executive director of strategy and planning and head of consulting at Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, Anne founded Onesixtyfourth, a boutique consultancy, to integrate cultural shifts and a social conscience into brand development. Her writings have appeared in Economist Books, hbr.orgThe Guardian, PR News, AdMap, Brand Quarterly, Journal of Brand Strategy, Bloomberg News, and many other publications, and she has been interviewed about her cultural research on Fox Business.

As an active community volunteer, Anne is extremely proud of the work she has done for non-profit and humanitarian aid organizations, both global and local. She holds an MBA from the Darden Graduate School at the University of Virginia and has been an adjunct professor at New York University Stern School of Business’s London campus.

Her book, Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, was published by AMACOM (November 2017).

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Before discussing Do Good, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

No one person has had the greatest influence on my personal growth or professional development. In many ways the two have been intertwined. My parents and maternal grandmother, who lived with us when I was growing up, set the foundations for how I view myself, my values, the things that matter most to me, and my ethos toward work. I’ve been blessed by the people who have entered my life at the right moments; various friends; my husband and my son; my first and fourth grade teachers; one of my professors in undergraduate; a manager at Grey Advertising; the head of research and product development in Middle Market at Chemical Bank; people on my team at BSMG (now WeberShandwick); a number of colleagues and people that reported to me at Interbrand; women I volunteer alongside; and people I’ve met through professional networking.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain. 

My career has been a journey of stepping stones. Each position taught me more about business models and structures, how to manage people and resources, and myself – what mattered most to me and ultimately what things drive, motivate and energize me. When I began working as a “brand consultant” in the mid- to late-90’s, it was as if I had found my home. I was able to apply both my quantitative and qualitative skills, and simultaneously focus on developing vision and strategy. For me branding has always been about aligning what a company says with what it does. When the concept of Brand Citizenship first began to come into view in trend research I was conducting at the end of 2011, it was too important to me to ignore. It holistically connected so many of the things I believed and spoke about, both personally and professionally. That’s why I granted myself the money to spend three years deconstructing brand leadership from corporate citizenship and brand loyalty.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

I began university as a molecular biology student (and interestingly, graphics art minor), and switched one day to Communications and English because I wanted to study people not rats. Desmond Morris’ book Manwatching had captured me wholeheartedly. I had been a Dean’s list, honors student in Math and Science in an earlier era when educators were looking to bring more women into these fields. Had I gone to a small school rather than a very large state university, someone may have explored more about why I was switching – rather than been solely focused on the fact that a young woman who was doing very well in math and science was switching to communications and English — and directed me to anthropology. My training in the scientific method and love of numbers alongside words and art have given me a different perspective on what I do than many of my colleagues. My business school education, which was based on the case study method, demanded that I learn about business holistically. Having a deeper understanding of finance, operations and organizational behavior than many of my colleagues, especially in the early years, was also invaluable. This knowledge aided me to act successfully as a change-agent and guided me to find ways to create successful, cross-disciplinary and geographically disparate teams.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Relationships matter. Full stop. I was brought up in a math and science, not a business, oriented family. I thought if you were smart, worked really hard and were honest you would get ahead. And I did with those skills early on. Perhaps this is actually an answer to who had the biggest impact on my professional development. During the summer of my business school internship, an engineer who was very senior in operations and had taken a liking to me because I knew how to effectively speak to him and his team (my father was an electrical and mechanical engineer), told me that I was a nice person, and I should let other people know that. Prior to him stating that, I was very task focused and often forgot to say “hello” when I walked into meetings.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Nothing really comes to mind, except maybe The Devil Wears Pradaand not likely in the way you’re thinking. It dramatizes the importance of doing your job well, the choices you’re sometimes forced to make when balancing your work ambitions with your personal life, the importance of building relationships, competition in the office, disappointment, loss of self/recognizing you’ve become someone you may not like, and so much more. And, well, how can you not love a movie about fashion and ambition!

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This embodies so much of my philosophy. No matter how senior I am, I like to get my hands dirty, do the research, develop the strategy, etc. I love to train people so that they get ahead and recognize their own brilliance. And bring people together in collaborations that are based on shared objectives, not functional roles. The most successful client engagements are constructed so that you guide clients to intuit and internalize brand strategy. It’s hard when you spend a lot of time developing exercises for workshops or narratives for presentations that guide clients to reach your conclusions on their own before you reveal them. But it’s essential. After all, they – not you as the consultant – own the brand. They – again, not you as the consultant – have to execute the strategy and embed it across their operations every day. And, ultimately, they do know that you connected seemingly disparate things in new ways, separated corporate anecdote from wisdom and brought them to a new point of awareness.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I’d say strategic planning is more about making the hard choices – what to do as much as what not to do – than about spreadsheets and graphs. It’s about reflecting on who you are, what you do well and what you’d like to be – and then being honest with yourself about what is and what is not realistic. And to what you’re willing to dedicate resources – people, time and dollars.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.

We live in a dynamic time, where maintaining the status quo is dangerous, and the bar is raised each day as companies uncover new ways of doing things and new scientific discoveries occur.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’” 

I’ve always taught the people who work for me – and told my clients – when what you know from observation or experience is disconnected from what the data is telling you , don’t simply assume the data is correct and your observations/experience is wrong. Look to understand why they are different. Because once you figure that out, you will have an “ah ha” moment.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” 

Seeing the future is meaningless if you can’t figure out how to manifest it. That said, you need to have a vision to guide your actions. Otherwise, you’ll expend energy constantly reframing and rebuilding. Good brand strategy is just that – a long term ambition that benchmarks a company’s behavior. Your “positioning” and/or value proposition is temporal and shifts as you enhance  core competencies and develop new ones , marketplace and competitive dynamics evolve, and cultural sentiment morphs.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Don’t just do things because you’re supposed to. Step back and first understand why you’re being asked to do something  and ensure it is adding or creating value. Just because something is efficient does not mean it’s effective.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend? Why? 

A meal or an hour is much easier than a weekend.  That said, I’d probably enjoy a weekend with  Cleopatra or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Both of these women are strong female leaders who had clear vision and did not shy away from making hard choices. Both were ambitious, owned their femininity, had political prowess, and went beyond the call of duty. And most importantly, both Cleopatra and Eleanor of Aquitaine are remembered for being themselves.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” 

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance? 

To happen, a change initiative needs a champion and more than one advocate. Senior executives must openly support change initiatives and reflect them in their behavior. Human Resources must review performance measurements to ensure they reflect the change. Changes must be communicated effectively so that people understand why they are happening, what they improve and what they impact – in a holistic manner.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive? 

There’s no one answer to that other than a culture that takes into account how individual employees grow and thrive. Every culture is not right for every person, and when a person finds a culture that aligns with their own ethos and values, they thrive.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem? 

We have to stop seeing work as the enemy of having a personal life, something that the concept of work-life balance inherently communicates. If we think of balance as work and personal life balance or life balance, the message is changed. Work is an important way to foster a sense of accomplishment and purpose for many people. It can help  us actualize  who we are. To engage employees, companies need to identify their purpose – their higher raison d’être or “ why” – and effectively communicate  this so employees  understand how they are creating/adding value to society every day. Further, the five steps of Brand Citizenship apply as much to how a company cultivates meaningful and loyal relationships with its employees as it does its customers. Aaron Hurst’s book,  The Purpose Economy , explains how companies can help employees live their purpose at work brilliantly.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

While the specifics may change, the challenges over the next 3-5 years will be fairly similar to many challenges CEOs face today: how to engage your workforce, how to continuously adapt to a volatile geo-political landscape, how to balance purpose and profit. While functional expertise will remain essential, silos in organizations must break down. Companies must evolve to be almost like neural networks with continually shifting centers of gravity, dependent on the problems being address/challenges to solve.

Now please shift your attention to Do Good. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. 

First, when and why did you decided to write it? 

Beginning in 2011, participants in my company’s CultureQ research project expressed the belief that companies were better equipped than governments to address and solve problems—from their daily ME concerns to their bigger WE worries about the economy, social issues, and the environment. They also named brands that surprised me as good corporate citizens – Apple, which at the time was being lambasted for supplier relationships – and Walmart. Their reasons for naming these brands as good corporate citizens were also very different than experts in branding, sustainability or corporate social responsibility would have expected.

For me, these findings were too important to ignore. So, over the next three years, I granted myself a significant amount of money to investigate them further. The five steps of the ME-to-WE continuum of Brand Citizenship emerged from the grassroots up as my research deconstructed brand leadership from good corporate citizenship and favorite brands.

My intent in writing  Do Good is to provoke more meaningful discussion and accelerate changes already under way. While social enterprises are important for innovation, because of their size, their efforts will go only so far in facilitating change. With wider scopes of operations, more capital available, and bigger talent pools, big brands can affect change on a much larger, global scale.

What are the defining characteristics of “the brave new world”?

The wired, digital world in which brands now operate has had a profound effect on the traditional pact between companies and their customers, employees, and stakeholders.

As people’s expectations for their relationships with brands have shifted, businesses are finding that their success is tied to their ability to demonstrate that they are committed to doing good, helping to solve people’s bigger social and environmental concerns.

Doing good has come to mean taking responsibility for more than traditional philanthropy or corporate social responsibility initiatives. It now signifies advocating for issues that matter to customers, employees, and stakeholders—whether they be about the local community, people’s global concerns, or sustaining the environment.

Technology has reshaped our cultural narrative in significant ways, not the least of which is the expectation that brands should be expected to make a profit while simultaneously doing good.

The power of social media and the impact of stories and images going viral have changed the response time for businesses. Brands must listen and respond in ways that are unprecedented for many of them.

More and more, business success will insist on companies’ reflecting and shaping developing trends and exhibiting leadership at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Brand Citizenship Model involves a five-step process that integrates good activities. For those who have not as yet read your book, what are the key points to be made about each step? First, Trust 

Trust is the starting point of Brand Citizenship, not the end point as it has historically been thought of by marketers and people in advertising. First and foremost, brands that deliver on their promises are trusted more. My research identified  that five essential elements foster deep faithfulness with customers and employees: clarity of purpose, reliability, sincerity, reciprocity, and active listening. Brands that give to give, not get, and use data to develop relationships, not only cross-sell services, tend to bridge Step 1 and Step 2. To nurture trust, mega-brands, like Walmart that have had reputational issues must be clear about why they exist and how they create meaningful social value to win trust with stakeholders.

Next, Enrichment  

People identify more with—and are less price sensitive toward—brands that help them to simplify their routines, make mundane tasks less dull, and enrich their daily lives. Brands that deliver holistic, integrated experiences—from a product’s or service’s look, feel, and communications to the user’s experience with these things—underpin their relevance to customers with more than product features and thereby position themselves for continued success.

Then, Responsibility 

Responsibility is the pivot point between being identified as a ME or a WE brand. And treating employees well and fairly is the most important element of Step 3. People told us that they want brands to be sustainable, have fair supplier relationships, etc, but they won’t give a company credit for doing these things if it doesn’t first treat its employees well. Importantly, well-intentioned, one-off philanthropy or socially responsible programs that are not strategically designed to deliver a brand’s purpose are unlikely to have a long-term impact on corporate reputation, employee engagement, or market share. And brands that take a political stance on issues that don’t align with company culture and policies run the risk of losing trust, and violating Step 1.

Also, Community 

Community is about connecting people through shared values. It’s about much more than social media and digital communities. The social networks and communities we belong to and opt out of in part shape the definition of who we are. All brands have the opportunity to cultivate loyalty and a sense of belongingness by demonstrating that they care about the things that matter most to customers, employees, and other shareholders.

Finally, Contribution 

Companies at Step 5 make choices congruent with their brand purpose. They’re for-profit pragmatists integrating awareness of social issues, behavioral modification, sustainability, and progress into the marketing of their goods and services, and their daily operations. People who buy products and services from or work for these companies often judge themselves to be doing good simply by association. Step 5 is about making people feel bigger than they are alone.

Which of the five steps seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

The most difficult is not any one of the five steps, but rather taking the first step. Embarking on the pathway of Brand Citizenship requires courage to break from business as usual. It ultimately relies on distinctive departments, outside agency teams, and other partners working closely together to credibly deliver its benefits, something that demands clarity of purpose and the breaking down of silos.

People tend to identify compoanies  as strategically at one step . To embrace Brand Citizednship fully, companies need to then  glide back and forth across all five. No two journeys are the same in terms of pattern. As I point out in Chapter 3, “Our research clearly corroborated that a company with a meaningful purpose can strategically position itself at any one of the five steps of Brand Citizenship and deliver benefits to both ME and WE. A clear purpose helps guide and benchmark all of a company’s actions and gives customers confidence.”

Then in Chapter 9, I elaborate: “To effectively glide forward and back across the model of Brand Citizenship and fully realize your purpose, it’s equally crucial to diagnose and benchmark where your brand is positioned on the five steps today relative to long-term ambitions over time.”

You focus on a number of organizations from which important lessons can be learned. Please discuss a few of the lessons.

The research we conducted in 2011 in part signaled that despite the resources companies were investing into corporate social responsibility and sustainability programs, good corporate citizenship resonated most strongly for many people when it was tied in some way to their day-to-day lives or addressed their individual hopes and concerns for themselves or society.

This was during another presidential election, when people were being told the economy was improving and not necessarily experiencing this in their own lives. Given their unease, I couldn’t help and wonder if a new ME-inclusive form of good corporate citizenship had become a key criterion for brand leadership.

Some of the brands participants in my company’s CultureQ research named as good corporate citizens in 2011—and why they chose them—startled me and would likely shock many corporate social responsibility and sustainability experts.

Did any comments in your initial research about  specific companies catch your eye?

Of course. Apple, for example, was named the number one good corporate citizen. And this was during a time Apple was being lambasted in the media for its supplier relationships. So why did more participants cite it as a good corporate citizen more than other brands?  Because  it made products that make life more inspired by bringing music into it 24/7 and because it made communicating with people worldwide easier.

In this same study, Microsoft, Google, and Ford were each perceived as focusing on the greater good in terms of their corporate citizenship. They were perceived as servicing the collective WE through their initiatives.

People told us Ford exemplified good corporate citizenship for making people feel proud by “coming back stronger” and exemplifying the turnaround that all Americans could themselves achieve in the wake of the 2008 recession.

According to our participants, Google adds value to society by: working to improve man’s existence and the environment; taking care of their employees; and making technology accessible to everyone. It’s important to note this was before Google created the holding company Alphabet and moved many of its businesses under the Alphabet umbrella.

Also for  our participants, the halo of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation extended onto Microsoft’s reputation, and as such they perceived the company as solving meaningful social problems. A very small number people named programs Microsoft actually had.

Virgin  was cited alongside  Apple and Google in when we asked participants in the research about brands they thought would demonstrate leadership in the coming year. They used the same words to describe brand leaders such as Apple, Google, and Virgin as they did effective political leaders: visionary, inspiring, helping to solve problems.

However different Tom’s of Maine, Warby Parker, and Newman’s Own may be in most respects, what do they share in common that can also be of substantial value to almost any other organization, whatever its size and nature may be?

These brands have a clear sense of their purpose (their higher raison d’être) and this understanding acts as a filter for decisions across their operations, as well as their communications. Their purpose is integral to their value proposition, not something that sits apart from it.

In your opinion, how can brand citizenship ensure that a company “never lets anyone down”?

No model can ensure a company will never let anyone down. Only the people who manage the company and work there can do that.  As I note throughout the book, and expand on it in Chapter 9:

“Like the process of change itself, the five steps of Brand Citizenship are not prescriptive. Rather, they frame a journey that by necessity must adapt with the shifting cultural landscape. In a business climate seeking to eliminate risk through big data analytics, however, the notion of no absolute rights and wrongs can be discomforting. Accepting that trial and error is necessary to break the status quo and create meaningful social impact is a hallmark of charting new territory—and of Brand Citizenship.

Some companies embarking on the journey of Brand Citizenship will just be starting out. Others may be seeking a better way to focus existing efforts. And still others may be looking for a model to integrate initiatives. Shaking old habits and acculturating to new ways of doing things takes time. And, although most businesses today accept that continual innovation is necessary to remain relevant, many continue to be nervous about the financial risks implied in adapting dynamic frameworks. No matter where a brand is in the process, however, like many of the brands highlighted in this book, it may fail several times before being successful. Experiment, fine-tune processes, scale initiatives, measure impact, and begin again.”

In your opinion, why is it that some of the most important “rules” about being good and doing good are so easy to express but so difficult to follow?

Being good requires discipline and making tough choices. It’s tempting to execute something that may create short-term lift in sales, but not align with your purpose or even value proposition. In the long-run this can erode brand equity and reputation. Being good requires self-awareness and recognition that you’ve veered off course. It’s about responding sincerely, not reacting.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Do Good will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one?

Brand Citizenship is an holistic approach. While many of the points I make can be separated, it’s their interdependency  that makes the difference. Moreover, they have substantbial value at work, to be sure, but also in all other areas of human activity.

Brand Citizenship is not a concept that sits in one department, or even two or three departments. It represents an ethos that integrates doing good activities, such as fair-employee policies, CSR, sustainability programs, ethical sourcing, and charitable giving with brand development in order to strengthen reputation, foster greater loyalty, and enhance value creation. It is something that everyone in a company ultimately should feel they can impact.

For someone new to a business career, the most important message is likely knowing what a company values and why it exists at the highest level – and understanding how you help achieve this through your daily activities – may help you to feel more fulfilled at work.

Advice for first-time supervisors?

Create an inclusive environment across your team and foster a sense of community. Make certain to cultivate a trusting environment. Ensure everyone on your team understands the company’s purpose, how they help to deliver this, and that the purpose acts as a filter or beacon for decision making.

For C-level executives?

There’s a strong business case for embracing Brand Citizenship; it’s not a cost of doing business or a luxury you can ignore.

For the owner/CEOs of small companies? 

Make certain your employee policies are fair and you treat people equally. Support the local community and causes your employees care about. Define your purpose and use this as a filter for decision making. Review your supply chain and choose suppliers whose values are in alignment with your and your purpose.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it? 

Probably this one: “What are the key attributes of companies that ‘do good’?”

While I explain some of this in my other responses, it’s important to empasize a few points.

There is not one type of Brand Citizenship company. Multiple approaches along the ME-to-WE continuum resonate with customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. Companies that embrace Brand citizenship foster emotional connections, which pull people toward them by promoting meaningful interactions. No matter what a company’s size, scale, or purpose, Brand Citizenship starts with cultivating trust. The bottom line is, companies must do what they say, reliably and with excellence, every time. When they make a mistake, they should offer the best service available to fix the problem and be honest when they can’t fix it. A company cannot gain credit for the good it is doing in its supply chain or through community programs unless it first lives up to its promises to customers and employees.

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Anne cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Amazon link

BrandCitizenship website link  

OneSixtyFourth website link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

HBR link

YouTube videos link


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