It hasn’t been easy to find much positive to talk about in Japan over the last few weeks but one cause for hope has been the outpouring of generosity that has followed from individuals, charities and states, but also from businesses. In fact, with most advertising pulled from TV as a sign of respect, the last three weeks have seen brands here trying to out-do each other in terms of generosity rather than catchy jingles.

It’s easy to be cynical about the corporate world when they’re acting ‘good’ and to assume that all they’re really interested in is what’s ‘good’ for their image. Whilst that may contain some truth, the picture is a bit more complicated that that.

First off, as donations from businesses began flooding in the first few days following the quake & tsunami, it seemed obvious that they were being made out of a genuine desire to help. The feeling of national unity was palpable and everybody just wanted to do something to help.

You could still argue that if the initial motivation were really altruism, then the donor wouldn’t talk about their donation. Surely this generosity is just an attempt to score points, undermining whatever better instinct first motivated the generosity?

Looked at from an individual’s perspective this point seems difficult to argue with. However, look at things from a more social perspective and the picture changes.

Whilst talking about giving might score points for the particular brands involved, it also shifts the terms of the marketplace, forcing other brands to up their game and do the same. In the end, the original cause is better served by brands talking about their generosity. It’s a win – win situation.

In this case, those brands with products that were genuinely useful in the situation came off even better. So when Uniqlo donated £5 million worth of HeatTeach clothing alongside a massive financial contribution, including around $10 million dollars from the personal fortune of founder Tadashi Yanai, and Panasonic donated 4,000 of their solar-powered lanterns as part of their contributions, they were both being of genuine use and proving the genuine usefulness of their products in the process.

Other brands tried to stand out by innovating to give people new reasons and routes to donate. For example Groupon agreed to match whatever donations were made through their site with their own contribution rasising $3.5 million in the first week. And online fashion brand Zozotown launched a charity t-shirt that has raised over $4 million so far.

Even online brands, which in themselves formed an integral part of the communication network needed in the aftermath of the disaster, were competing to be more useful than each other. I’ve already written about the value of Twitter as a source of information during the crisis and Google played a central role in helping people locate loved one with their People Finder service, amongst other toolds. Following them, it wasn’t long before Facebook also had advice on the earthquake built into their service for Japanese users. The biggest player in search here, Yahoo, has even starting running TV ads for their range of services, including a site that displays Eastern Japan’s current electricity usage as the population tries to preserve energy to prevent blackouts.

In all, the changed context since the disaster has forced brands to compete with each other on terms that are more widely beneficial. As Japan starts to recover and commercial realities begin to loom large once again, companies will undoubtedly fall back to trying to out compete each other on less altruistic terms.

However, perhaps those with a more long-sighted view will realise that there is a bigger contextual shift taking place and that with growing pressure on the planet’s ecosystems and ever greater scrutiny of how businesses behave, brands will increasingly be judged on the wider contribution they are making to society. In that case, they may try to hang onto the current mood and reflect it a little more in the way they do business in the future.

As that happens, we should remember not to judge brands in the same way as individuals when they talk about their achievements. Because when brands boast about doing genuine good, it’s likely to be to everybody’s benefit.

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