Business, much like sports and music, is one of the few “languages” that can bridge political, cultural and social barriers between nations and ethnic groups. As international trade expands and corporate brands become respected and consistent contributors to peaceful and prosperous societies, corporations can play an increasingly vital role in furthering international diplomacy.

Social media is rapidly advancing this new role of business. The tools of social media are connecting companies and their customers as never before, while at the same time allowing citizens to talk amongst one another to share their ideas, hopes and values. Facebook, Twitter and technology such as smart phones are dismantling the long-standing, hierarchical power structures through which consumers and citizens were told by top-down institutions and media monopolies what to think or how to behave. Now consumers and citizens can seamlessly talk among each other, aligning around shared values, causes or topics in ways that don’t necessarily support the status quo.

The good news is social networking tools are arriving at the same time that we are developing a heightened awareness of the crises we face in the world. The global financial meltdown of 2008 reinforced the extent to which our economies, cultures and lives are intimately connected. A spate of natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and most recently in Japan, and the powerful citizen-led political revolutions throughout the Middle East are inspiring citizens and consumers to express their growing collective desire to live in a better world where governments and economic systems take responsibility for providing people with greater security, peace and prosperity.

Social media is facilitating new types of relationships between business and consumers that can help drive diplomacy in the coming years. In the marketing world, social media gives consumers new leverage to demand that corporations take on greater social responsibility in exchange for the profits they make from selling their products to a worldwide audience. For their part, brands are recognizing the value of using social media to connect directly with their customers and to ensure that they are relevant, meaningful and sharable within the social business marketplace. Within this mutually beneficial partnership, consumers are insisting on building a world based on new values (e.g. sustainability, prosperity and peace), and businesses are increasingly listening and responding.

A recent example of the power of social media in business was the Pepsi Refresh campaign. Begun in 2010, Pepsi challenged consumers in the U.S. to identify worthy charitable projects that Pepsi could fund to the tune of about $20 million. The company created a platform where anyone could list a charity that needed support and all consumers could vote on which cause they wanted Pepsi to support. The campaign attracted consumers by the millions raising the brand’s awareness and earning them valuable social capital.

There is no doubt that in the future we will see more instances of consumers and brands working together for social transformation throughout the world. As brands seek to enlarge their global appeal, such projects will cross formerly sacred boundaries, involving consumers from many cultures, religions and nation-states all working together and aligned around shared values. Ultimately, when traditional diplomacy is struggling to win popular support or to generate tangible change on the ground, it very well may be that enlisting the support of brands and their consumer communities will be the most effective way to achieve that goal.

Simon Mainwaring is the author of We First: How brands and consumers use social media to build a better ( He is the founder of We First, a social branding consultancy that help companies build communities, profits and positive impact. He is a member of the GMI Digital Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, AdAge’s Power150 and is an Expert Blogger for Fast Company. Follow Simon on twitter: @simonmainwaring