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November 9, 2006 | Andrew Winston | Jump to: Comments (0) | Post A Comment

The Search for Intangible Value

I spent the last few days at the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Conference in NYC. This is one of the biggest sustainability conferences, with CEOs like Time Warner’s Dick Parsons and Coca-Cola’s Neville Isdell giving keynote addresses—plus lots of smaller sessions on everything from human rights to creating successful environmental strategies (that would be the one titled “Green to Gold” — the panel was me, Dan, and Louise Konig from IKEA). Thanks to a generous donation from Coca-Cola, all 1,200 conference attendees were given a copy of our book.

On the content front, there wasn’t a particular session that grabbed me, but something struck me. I went to two different sessions, one titled “Unlocking Hidden Value: Intangible Value and CSR” and the other about “Communicating CSR” with a heavy dose of soft, communications-oriented, brand-building talk. Both of these talks were packed with people overflowing from the room.

Clearly, CSR professionals are searching for ways to value, and enhance, intangible value. The cynic would say companies are just searching for ways to spin, but I don’t believe that’s what’s going on. People are waking up to a couple of things we focus on in the book: intangible value is a huge part of many companies’ market values, and if thought through strategically, intangible value can be purposely enhanced. Of course, it’s not just about good communications — you have to have something to back up what you’re saying.

But to enhance intangible value, it helps to know how much there is, or how much effect what you’re doing is having. I met Farron Levy from true impact, a small firm with a software product that puts a value on CSR activities such as community involvement. I can’t speak for this firm and don’t know the product really, but the idea is good (others like TruCost in the UK are in a related space).

It’s not as crazy as it might seem. If good community relations gets a company permits to expand or locate a new facility, and if you estimate the number of months saved, putting a number on cost of capital isn’t that hard. This kind of quantitative approach may end up being a fool’s errand…or it may help solve a critical problem with sustainability, namely communicating with Wall Street (see Wall Street Doesn’t Get It). This may be one way to develop metrics that investors can get their heads around. It’s a worthy pursuit, and if the attendance at those BSR sessions is any indication, the demand for something that helps is rising.


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