How corporate social responsibility is changing brand communications

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) used to be an add-on for brands, a silo of the business that dealt with charity partnerships and sustainability think-tanks. Now, it’s right at the heart of a brand’s identity. It’s even had a rebrand: purpose-led brands, and purpose-driven marketing.
The challenge for brands is how to find the right purpose or cause, and how to advocate for it without alienating the customers they want to keep.
We’re living much more polarised societies than we were, both in the UK and US. It’s become harder for people to empathise with opposing viewpoints.
As we’ve seen with brands like Nike and Gillette, taking a stance on values can alienate as much as it can inspire. With this in mind, should brands be acting and communicating on issues important to them? Should they have a wider purpose? How can they use this purpose to engage customers and non-customers alike?
Do consumers care about corporate social responsibility?
According to research conducted by Clutch, they do. The research firm surveyed 420 American consumers, asking them about what they wanted from the organisations they did business with.
While 75% of respondents said they would be likely to start doing business with a brand that shared their stance on issues that they found important, 59% said that they would stop doing business with a brand that held an opposing view to their own (this was especially true of Gen X and Millennial respondents).
However, 71% said that they placed a high value on brands having a purpose that they expressed through corporate social responsibility initiatives, and also admitted that it was important for businesses to have a view on social issues.
People don’t just care about CSR as consumers; they’re also willing to adapt their careers to support issues that matter to them.
Cone Communications found that Millennials are more likely to be loyal to an employer that helps them feel like they’re contributing to solving major social and environmental issues, and 75% would take a lower pay package for working for a company dedicated to a CSR programme.
Another study found that CSR campaigns can increase sales by as much as 20% and raise a company’s share price by 6%.
Corporate social responsibility programmes must be backed up with a genuine purpose
Despite the business benefits of CSR, research has found that initiatives founded for profit, not purpose, are likely to fail. Employees want to know that the motivation behind the campaign is genuine, and not just a money-grab, or being done because it’s something a modern brand has to do.
If employees don’t believe that the CSR is genuine, neither will the public.
Three ways brands can develop corporate social responsibility campaigns that engage audiences and inspire action

  1. The purpose must be authentic. Choose a cause that the business is genuinely passionate about and acts on. One of the ways to show authenticity is via public accountability. Unilever, for example, lists its “three big goals” on its website, where people can track its progress.
  2. Take visible action to support a stated purpose. Don’t just say you support a cause, do something to support it first. CSR is making a commitment to having a positive impact on the world. This is shown by action, not words. One of the best examples of this in practice is the Xerox Community Involvement Program. In 2017, the business invested $778,375 in 344 projects that its employees volunteered for.
  3. Empower customers to act. Customers who share the brand’s values will welcome the opportunity to be part of the solution to the issues they care about. By creating projects that ask customers to get involved, brands give people ownership of the success of the CSR project, which helps to strengthen the relationship between brand and customer. For example, Google is committed to sustainability, but it also encourages people to review how they can change their daily habits to save resources via its Your Plan, Your Planet site.

Corporate social responsibility can serve as a brilliant way to engage audiences and inspire people to act to benefit society, but brands must ensure have a genuine interest in the causes they promote and then deliver it with authenticity.

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