Imagine if the recent disaster of the garment factories in Bangladesh had happened to production units owned by Nike, Coca Cola or Apple. It would have resulted in billions lost in stock market value overnight, huge consumer boycotts all over the world and most likely the resignation of several senior executives. The companies would have had no choice but to compensate the families of lost ones and in the long run re-think their entire supply chain.
Compare this to the ramifications of the Bangladesh catastrophe where over 1,000 factory workers were tragically killed. Yes, it looks like the families will be compensated after all, and 50 fashion brands may have agreed to contribute upto $500,000 to improve safety conditions for workers. Yet at the moment it seems the long lasting effects on the industry will still be limited compared to what one would expect from a disaster of this magnitude. The issue is turning into fruitless debates and endless finger pointing among the firms involved about who really bears responsibility for this mess.
Why? Well there are two reasons. Firstly, there wasn't a single brand associated with the disaster. Multiple companies got their garments from the death trap factories, not just one. This made it hard to figure out who was to blame. Secondly, none of the companies involved were global super brands. A big brand that holds true emotional connection to its consumers and the world will invoke a big reaction if it misbehaves. Lesser brands are harder to target on an emotional level. People will not demonstrate against or boycott brands they hardly know.
This is why brands are in many ways the strongest and most important link between the values of the world and the bottom line. Or put another way: forgetting fierce government regulation (which is unlikely in places such as Bangladesh, where institutions are weak), brands are the only hope for workers under poor conditions. Strong brands cannot afford a disaster like this to happen. Weak brands can.
This is a challenge, but also an opportunity for brands and the branding industry to make a huge difference to the world.
The way branding could help workers takes many forms. One way to inspire the industry could be to build a young, disruptive Born in Asia" brand from scratch. Inspired by American Apparel, which turned good working conditions and the fact that production took place in factories in downtown LA into a key brand differentiator, a new brand that felt uniquely authentic from the East could build a powerful proposition.
Or it could be a new high-end brand like Edun, founded by Bono from U2 and his wife Ali Hewson, and now owned by LWMH. Edun has a unique luxury African identity. An Asian brand could do the same.
An entirely different way a brand could improve working conditions would be to create an umbrella brand, like Fair Trade, that would become a powerful and emotional symbol, of good working conditions. The goal would be for brands with that label to be able to charge price premiums.
And of course existing brands could also start building sustainable sub brands; lines that were produced under extraordinary good conditions. H&M is taking steps in that direction with their successful Organic Cotton range.
These are just some of the tools available for brand builders who want to make a positive difference and at the same time create deep and meaningful differentiation.
At v3 we think this is a big opportunity. We think the Bangladesh disaster should be a wakeup call to us all and in the coming months we will explore new innovative ways that brands can help save more lives.
We hope others will join in. So watch this space.