There’s a world of nuance that goes into communicating corporate social responsibility (CSR). Customers vote with their wallets. CSR-forward marketing campaigns help brands build identities that ethical consumers rally behind. For that to happen, marketers can’t keep quiet. They need to shout their stories from the rooftops so that consumers with common moral outlooks can affect change through their support. These same campaigns, however, can be easily mishandled. Highlighting short-term wins can lead customers to see posture, not altruism. Shout too loud and a brand looks more interested in recognition than genuinely solving the problem. Worse still is when business divisions maintain disparate levels of commitment to a social responsibility charter. The achievements of many teams can instantly unravel when one rogue department is willing to sacrifice their morals to hit their performance targets.
Forethought, involvement, budgetary discipline and departmental alignment all play pivotal roles in the optics of CSR marketing. A lack of consideration for any one of these factors can invalidate the others. Balanced appropriately, though, they can propel a business to new levels of commercial and social success.
CSR initiatives tackle complex issues. Most can’t be solved with quick, band-aid solutions. It’s critical that businesses invest time and money into understanding the long-term impact of their actions. It’s an approach embodied by the Lego group, one of the world’s CSR leaders. Since its founding in 1932, the Danish toy maker’s flagship product has relied heavily on petroleum-based materials. Over the intervening decades, popular attitudes towards plastic have changed drastically, and it’s now recognized as one of the greatest threats to our environment. Rather than look for quick wins, Lego is pursuing a solution that will remain relevant for future generations.
“The centerpiece of this initiative is Lego’s Sustainable Materials Center, which is expected to recruit more than 100 employees in an effort to find and implement sustainable alternatives to existing materials by 2030,” explains Simon Mainwaring, founder and CEO of brand consultancy We First. “And just to prove how dedicated they are, Lego recently announced that they’ll be putting 1 billion DKK ($165 million USD) behind the cause.” By committing to a complete overhaul of its materials practices, Lego demonstrated long-term interest in the planet’s well-being, earning the respect of ethically discerning customers around the world.
Getting Customers Involved
Tying audience participation into CSR initiatives lets brands amplify their impact while fostering tighter customer relationships. Customers get to experience direct emotional connection with their efforts, which can be a powerful way to build brand recognition. Dog food manufacturer Pedigree has a long and successful history of dovetailing marketing interests with social responsibility. “Pedigree donates one bowl of food to animal shelters every time it gets a Facebook fan, and it did the same when the company’s 2009 Super Bowl commercial was viewed online,” explains Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the Association of National Advertisers. “Pedigree’s goal is to donate 4 million bowls of dog food, enough to feed every shelter dog in America for one day.” It’s been a wildly successful way for the company to drive engagement with its social channels while affecting positive change that its customers can get behind. Unfortunately, not all companies have been able to garner the same levels of engagement.
Poor Resource Allocation
In the world of social responsibility, money talks. What many marketers forget, however, is that it can just as easily say negative things. Budgetary imbalances between altruistic spending and more self-serving line items can paint an unflattering portrait of a company whose CSR initiatives are driven by exposure rather than a genuine interest in bettering society. Tobacco empire Phillip Morris learned this the hard way after commissioning a series of television ads spotlighting a number of charitable donations they’d made, including a $30,000 gift towards repairing the roof of a Michigan homeless shelter. The shelter’s operators were grateful, but the supporting ads got some negative attention when journalists came into possession of some troubling financial documents. “Last year, the company spent $115 million on charity and $150 million on these TV ads,” explained ABC news, noting also that many of the donations made by the company were to charities favored by the families of key legislators who had the power to alter tobacco laws in ways that might benefit the company. The scandal did lasting damage to an already disadvantaged brand identity.
CSR goals need to rank high among the priorities of all departments, not just the customer-facing ones. Volkswagen came to know this all too well following its 2015 emissions scandal, in which the EPA flagged the German automaker as having violated the Clean Air Act by programming diesel engines to engage emissions controls only when being tested. Standard operating conditions saw the vehicles emitting up to 40 times more hazardous chemicals.
This stood in stark contrast to the company’s established brand identity and marketing materials. According to the Guardian, an environmental sustainability report released a year prior to the scandal had the company claiming to be “the world’s most environmentally compatible automaker” and stated that “the Volkswagen Group has a long tradition of resolute commitment to environmental protection.” Though this might seem to be an engineering issue, the company’s CSR professionals are not without blame. “How can the head of CSR deny he knew anything about what was going on?,” asks Enrique Dons in a retrospective for Forbes magazine. “Either that person wasn’t doing their job, or they were colluding. The conclusion can only be that for Volkswagen, CSR is a marketing exercise.”
Modern audiences have little trouble telling the difference between a hollow gesture and a genuine attempt to affect positive systemic change. For those companies interested in giving back to their community, CSR initiatives need to be at the center of their operational mandates. This ensures that the company is able to communicate and enact its vision for societal betterment with a clear conscience and support from its customers. Unfortunately for those strictly in it for the recognition, all the strategic marketing in the world can’t mask impure intentions, and the truth always gets out.