Corporate social responsibility: The (mostly) good, the bad, and the ugly

Corporate social responsibility: The (mostly) good, the bad, and the ugly
January 31, 2018 OPR

31 January 2018: Since the dawn of public relations, healthy consumer skepticism has raised the question: “Why? Why am I being sold this message, service or product?”. This, in turn, has extended to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and its place in brands’ business strategies.

That leads to the bigger question. Is CSR truly philanthropic or is it a commercial brand management exercise designed to win customer loyalty? In truth, it’s both. CSR has emerged as a key business priority for brands across a range of industries, founded on the premise of giving back to stakeholders.

But before you run off to make your company greener, cleaner, or improve your demeanor, there’s more to be learnt from the old adage, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, than social etiquette.

“The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people,” says Brian Mullaney, Co-Founder of Smile Train, and he’s not entirely wrong. CSR aims to meet what a brand envisages its publics’ ethical and moral standards to be, to engender feelings of goodwill and drive business objectives and outcomes. However, to truly realise the commercial benefits, CSR initiatives must align much more closely with the brand’s core values, and act as an extension of their marketable offering.

Brands have traditionally shaped social and commercial trends through associative advertising; think Westinghouse Electric’s 1943 ‘We Can Do It!’ wartime propaganda, or Leo Burnett’s 1954 Marlboro Man – among the most powerful brand images of the 20th century.

This is the age in which companies need to take a more conscious approach to commercialism as consumers place their trust in brands making positive, “selfless”, contributions to society. As Mark Twain put it: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” The “why” is key for brands too.

A long running global CSR initiative is The Imagine Cup by Microsoft, founded by Bill Gates some 15 years ago. It connects one of the company’s ideological pillars with their product portfolio, becoming one of the world’s leading student technology competitions. It provides a global platform for students to showcase technological innovation, design, and “bigger thinking”. Through the competition, Microsoft perpetuates its genuine and conscientious brand purpose in the public domain, while meeting key business objectives.

Apple recently soared its way to lofty heights atop Greenpeace’s 2017 Click Clean Report for the third year running, thanks to the company’s aggressive pursuit of its commitment to renewable energy. Apple’s potential impact on the environment is under constant scrutiny from its customers and the community, and green policies are understandably seen to resonate strongly with these constituents. As a result, these broader initiatives outside the company’s basic offering are there to foster brand loyalty and engagement, while simultaneously providing a commercial return on investment.

However, regardless of the contributions companies make to third-party beneficiaries, history tells us these same bodies have been responsible for ecological atrocities and human rights violations. It’s this dissociation, between a brand’s raison d’être and their CSR initiatives, which does little to serve the greater objectives of the brand.

In calculating whether the potential commercial value of CSR is justified, it’s also important to ascertain the integrity of such actions. Just because a brand can say something does not mean that it should. However, in the perceived face of reckless disregard for nothing but profit margins, it’s easy to forget a truth – businesses are run by people; and people, I believe, are inherently good. While the motivations behind CSR can be monetary, we should still cut business some slack and at least acknowledge that they start from a position of goodwill. While CSR can offer a financial return on investment, it can also evoke meaning. That is, being a part of something bigger than just selling, or being sold, another product.

Looking ahead to more tangible, commercial benefits, if a brand wants to extend or transcend its basic goods and services, it must begin to look to additional relevant ways of both improving its offering, and connecting with consumers outside the commercial arena. At the same time, it must simultaneously reinforce the company’s foundational pillars and core beliefs. Speaking in terms of an economic  “bottom line”, CSR is a corporate quid pro quo, but only if you have something worth saying.

By Michael Collins, Account Manager, Howorth Communications

This article originally appeared on Telum Media – www.telummedia.com