Stan Slap On Marketing vs Morals
Fund manager Zhao Danyang is paying $2.1 million to eat lunch at an overrated steak restaurant in New York with Warren Buffett and seven people he’s desperate to impress. In consideration of what $2.1 million will buy the disenfranchised in today’s world, including in Hong Kong where Danyang is based, this is an obnoxious use of funds.
Danyang manages money at a company called Pure Heart China Growth Fund. Perhaps there is some other meaning of the term “pure heart,” since a perusal of their website promotes no desire to operate with one, cherish one or protect one in others. In all fairness, Danyang might have bid to win the lunch because he knew Buffett was giving the money to a small charity in San Francisco. But not in all probability: A Pure Heart spokesperson claims Danyang’s motivation to be “he’s a big fan” — presumably of Buffett, not the charity. So while the money is being inarguably well directed, it seems more of a marketing decision than a moral one. This is what separates Buffett from those he’s going to have lunch with.
Fortunately, the recipient is Glide Foundation, part of Glide Memorial Church, which is everything a church really should be. It operates without regard to religious, racial or sexual designation, dispensing dogmatic-free unconditional love to those who’ve long endured unconditional despair. It feeds people, it repairs and builds lives, it advocates on behalf of those who have no voice. It is an organization that operates with a tender empathy for the individual impact of its work and it never holds itself above those it serves. It could reasonably call itself The Glide Pure Heart Church. I’m proud to have been a member for many years.
Along these same lines, I just returned from a branding conference in Europe yesterday, where I was on a panel with Neville Isdell, Chairman of Coke, and Rita Clifton, Chairman of Interbrand in London—two intelligent, decent and delightful people. After the conference we adjourned to dinner and were joined by a few folks, including the CEO of one multibillion international company in particular.
Talk at dinner turned to the high degree of cynicism from the conference audience. Many had assailed Neville and Rita about the socially evil impact of large brands on developing countries. The aforementioned CEO proceeded to dismiss those audience concerns as naïve and arrogant and went on to pontificate about how his shareholders expect him to be able to “make marketing decisions, not moral decisions.” He was smugly proud of his ability to distinguish between priority issues and negligible ones.
When small men cast large shadows, you know the sun is setting.
Naïveté and arrogance are rarely a winning combination, and accusing others of them when you are displaying them yourself is even more of a losing strategy. Given this type of sniffingly disdainful condescension it’s hard to fault people for suspecting corporate motives and believing large companies to be amoral, self-serving, predatory beasts.
This isn’t the case with any company that has truly become branded, though. Becoming branded is a rare accomplishment for a company. It requires earning faith from consumers that the company will operate in the right way — with an ethical foundation that attempts to avoid harming the world and a use of its power as a force for good. Brands make us all feel safer because they show that a large organization of humans can be counted on to do the right thing despite constant financial temptation not to. Brands confirm what is possible from companies and help set the example of what is possible in communities, families and individual relationships.
Brands make moral decisions that drive marketing decisions. And brands return most heavily on shareholder investment.
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For any number of reasons, Zhao Danyang may have a difficult time impressing Warren Buffett at lunch. I’ve had dinner with Warren, about a year ago. Paid nothing special for it. He and I ate at an upscale hotel in Seattle. Warren rolled his eyes as the first of the nouvelle hors de oeuvres were put in front of him and declared, “I never eat anything they don’t serve at McDonald’s.” “Oh, come on,” I chided, whereupon he whipped out his wallet to show me a heavily worn lifetime free pass given to him by the McDonald’s Omaha franchisees. “Clinton doesn’t have one of these,” he boasted. “Gee, that’s pretty cool, Warren,” I said. “That’s nothing!” he exclaimed and whipped out a heavily worn lifetime free Hooters card.
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