CSR? It’s just ‘marketing’ isn’t it?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is part of a bigger agenda for Society Matters to stimulate and enable Corporate Social Action – encouraging businesses, and the people within them, to take an active role in driving and enabling social change.  

But we’ve found CSR to be a subject that can generate a degree of cynicism – and sometimes ill-feeling – amongst businesses and their staff and, if we’re honest, amongst the community and voluntary sector as companies strive to ‘do their bit’ for the local community, or the environment, or charities. It can sometimes be derided as a thinly veiled piece of marketing promotion or an insincere attempt to look virtuous, rather than a ‘real’ commitment to the causes the company is helping.

But the team at Society Matters is passionate about helping businesses to make their mark through taking social action, and really would argue that there doesn’t need to be much of a gap between the objectives of sound marketing strategy and a well-planned commitment to championing social value; that it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, rather it is a case of two valuable business aims that complement each other.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

In its broadest sense CSR is an overt commitment by a business being responsible, carrying out its activities in a way that is ethically, socially and environmentally appropriate, making a positive impact on their local and global community and environment.

This can involve an array of activities, starting with simply contributing to the economy, fulfilling your legal obligations and acting in an ethical manner towards your employees. It is usually when a business moves towards more philanthropic activities, though, that it starts to be recognised as CSR; contributing to charities, creating opportunities for employee volunteering, addressing environmental impact and initiatives that focus on other discretionary practices that impact on society.

However, there are many examples of companies who have CSR policies that have generated Corporate Social Action (CSA) that has not been well received by customers, seeming incongruous to the purpose of the business or, worse still, like an attempt to off-set some negative impact with a positive contribution. This type of action gets labelled as tokenism, fake publicity stunts and marketing ‘spin’ and end up doing substantial damage to the business’s reputation.

You must be more than your promise

The answer, of course, that you make your ‘CSR’ about action – we call that Corporate Social Action (‘CSA’) to differentiate the intent to ‘do good’ and the real grass roots action. This can be achieved by making your CSA part of your product (or service, or experience) rather than something that is added on at a later date (think of it as part of your total product concept, alongside your after-sales service or your customer care commitment). This way it becomes a natural part of your brand, and you become recognised for it. Get it right, and your business identity becomes synonymous with being a good corporate citizen and both you, and society, reap the rewards. It is a classic win-win scenario. This blog features 6 socially responsible companies to applaud because ‘they have made it their mission to do good’ and they pretty much all follow this approach – Ben & Jerry’s ice cream being a case in point, with safe, responsible business built into their business model, from their working practices to their ingredients and supply chain.

There is, as always, a different perspective to be had. If your product is already strong, and selling well, with strong profits and great market position, why would you spend time and energy on actions that simple reduce your margins?

The case for Consumer Driven CSA

The answer is simple; the market is changing and customer expectations are evolving to make CSA an essential part of corporate strategy – doing good is good for business as well as society.

Consider the changing needs of your customers. From a B2C angle, there is clear evidence that customers are becoming increasingly concerned about the activities that a company undertakes and the reputation that it gains, as part of their decision making process. Studies show that modern consumers are highly likely to favour brands that address social problems, prioritise CSA and act in an open and honest way about these activities.

From a B2B angle, if you are part of a supply chain those upstream from you may be operating an ethical supply policy and looking not just for competitive pricing from you, but also for social and environmental impact that is in line with their policies and brand.  

Now there is a case to be argued that there is a difference between consumers (or supply chain partners) stating an interest in CSA and them actually changing their intentions to create different behaviours. However, if someone wants to have their personal or professional branding reflect their ethical consumption, they are more likely to do it if the product or service is already there that matches their need. Cone Communication’s 2017 study suggests that 87% of consumers will make a purchase if a company advocates for an issue they are concerned about – and 76% will refuse to purchase if the company’s stance runs contrary to their interest.

If your customers are now increasingly expecting higher levels of overt social responsibility from your business, and seeing that as part of the total product that you are generating, the question is not whether you should address this as an option for your business; it is a question of whether you can afford not to?

Consistency with Vision and Values

Were it this simple – casually ensuring your CSA matches with the latest issues to make the news for consumers – everyone would do it. However, there is another hurdle to be considered, and that is whether your actions match your own corporate identity? Do your values and vision match your social intent? When you act, do you act with integrity and commitment because your whole business is genuine in its direction of travel? Do you truly want to ‘make your mark’? Consumers exist in a world of readily available information and comparison – if your actions are not genuine, they will find out and in all probability, you will be called out in public by them.

However, it is certainly possible for your company to align the values that inform its operations with those of your customers. Analysing the way that you work, the way that you impact the world around you, and the way that you enrich your community,  and ensuring that they are all heading towards the same goal – this is the way to ensure that your ‘CSR’ is the best sort of marketing you can have at your disposal; genuine, committed and resonant with your customers.

At Society Matters we passionately believe that companies will prosper if they can invigorate socially responsible policy and practice into exciting plans of action that reflect the mood of their customers. In so doing, every business can contribute towards a fair society for all and making a tangible difference to people’s lives.

If you think your business could benefit from reviewing how you can make your mark on society, get in touch to chat about how we can help.