It’s curious how many companies spend so much publicising their societal good works, yet don’t think this a competitive area. But for brand experience and simple awareness, this stuff is as cutthroat as it gets. Yet the company that is most successful, uniquely able to cement a place in South African hearts through its philanthropy, hasn’t used the loudhailers. Its name is Anglo American.
Today, it’s almost impossible to open a newspaper without seeing companies extolling their goodness, or even to drive along our highways and miss billboards announcing the same. It’s a cluttered communications terrain and one in which it’s difficult to be noticed, never mind believed or seen as especially different. Because everyone’s doing it, being believed means talking about this stuff in ways that are original, fit to purpose, and convincing. The only thing worse than being part of the “comms wallpaper” of sameness in this message is saying nothing at all. How, then, has Anglo American dominated public affection in this space, without saying much at all?
Here’s why: It’s only 20 years since corporate SA really got going to scale in social investment. Until then, that space was largely owned in the public imagination by the broader Anglo American group which involved itself in charitable giving throughout its existence (also in its De Beers guise) and formalised this work already in the 1950s.
As De Beers, it reported charitable works to shareholders already in 1890, two years after birth; as Anglo American, already in 1919, also two years after that part of the conglomerate’s coming into being. Being virtually alone on that field, for many decades, it did this stuff with little fanfare – and with resultant kudos.
Wrote veteran change watcher Denis Beckett in “The Good Company” in December 2009:
“In my impressionable youth, Anglo American was the king of gem companies. I’m not saying its wage structures were perfect or its takeover deals were saintly. I think it conducted itself well for its times, but to later times, of course, yesterday’s good conduct is primitive, just as things that
we say and think now, seeing ourselves as terrifically enlightened, will look primitive to our grandchildren. Anglo’s Chairman’s Fund, though, was a rare treasure, leaving a modest plaque on the walls of umpteen thousand crèches and clinics and community centres, and silently enriching arts and culture and philosophy and enquiry and research. If every company, on its own scale, merely took an interest in the country around it like Anglo did, we’d be a very healthy country”.
Surveys in the late Eighties, times fraught with ideological clash and social disintegration, found Anglo American to be the country’s most loved corporate brand among blacks.
With the post-1994 onset of vigorous CSI across the private sector, Cape Town analytical group Trialogue annually sent out researchers across the non-profit and charitable landscape to rank their anonymous perceptions of best practice in corporate giving. It gave this up when 10 consecutive years found Anglo’s ranking among NGOs to be unassailably highest – and thus just predictable, year-in-year-out.
Whether that brand strength, among South Africa’s poor and non-consumers of company product, still stands for Anglo is unknowable, but likely. And not just because, at R550 million a year, Anglo’s corporate social investment spend in SA is still in multiples above anyone else. Not all is straight CSI, some going through mining licence-related social and labour plans, some through things like the environmental Diamond Route, and lots through the Anglo American and De Beers Zimele programmes of assisting small business start-ups and including many of these in company supply chains.
Stronger would be the “soft power” of that company’s traditions and the longevity of many of her relationships (thus, for example, Jo’burg Child Welfare counts consistent Anglo American-related financial support from 1947).
So why, then, doesn’t Anglo just bask in its love affair with South Africans, and say nothing further? Why, instead, have they been running fulsome communications campaigns (the through-the-line part managed by ad agency Joe Public) punting their commitment to SA?
The answer is that their newish campaigns, subtly basing company image through a focus on gritty human employees, are aimed neither at consumers, nor broader society. They are campaigns to influence government (holders of those pesky “new order mining rights” licences) and among a staff increasingly at risk as the commodity boom ebbs away.
Meanwhile, among the broader citizenry, the positive glow of decades of Anglo American, virtually alone, answering the calls of the destitute and the helpless, still counts for a lot. Anglo American’s CSI turns out to have been an investment that just keeps giving back.