From helping support Covid-19 relief efforts to raising awareness around social inequalities, we’ve seen a string of brands up their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and purpose-driven marketing in the past 12 months. The year 2020 was forced brands to reevaluate their relationship with consumers and the communities they operate within as people all over the world looked to politicians and brand to do better.
But, today's consumers don't just want to read a polished corporate statement from a company's PR team — they want action. Social responsibility needs to be deep-rooted in the DNA of your organization to prevent audiences from perceiving you as ‘woke washing’, ‘greenwashing’, ‘good washing’, ‘armchair activists’, ‘slacktivism’ and the rest. Implementing CSR initiatives into your marketing strategy requires a willingness to help others, not only your bottom line. In this blog, we'll explain what an authentic CSR program looks like.
But first, what is the definition of corporate social responsibility?
If you are asking yourself, “what does CSR mean?” we like to defer to this CSR definition:
“Corporate social responsibility is a mechanism for businesses to assess the impact they have on society and put responsible, ethical policies in place to support individuals, the local community, the marketplace and the environment.”
Unfortunately, each company has its definition of corporate social responsibility, but there are notable common threads used to define what is CSR in business:
- An aim of contributing to societal goals through philanthropic or charitable acts
- An acknowledgment of the fact that corporate responsibility is a self-regulated initiative that helps a company to be more socially accountable through corporate governance
- Acknowledgment of the fact that CSR assists relationship management between the company and its surrounding environment (e.g. stakeholders and local communities)
What is the Purpose of Corporate Social Responsibility?
Giving back to the communities you serve and helping protect the environment is the cost of doing business today. While why a company begins to focus on CSR should be driven by an internal motivation to do good, external forces are also making sure CSR in on the corporate agenda.
Audiences place a high value on social responsibility, in fact, 78% of people want companies to address social justice issues and 63% said they hoped businesses will drive social and environmental social responsibility change where government regulation lacks. By focusing on social responsibility, corporates are giving their audiences what they demand.
Also, it’s nice to be nice. Having a CSR strategy should come from wanting to be/ do better — and not from wanting to drive profits. Today’s savvy consumers can spot brands that partake in social responsibility from a ‘selfish’ standpoint from miles away. And if an organization is looking to begin a CSR campaign solely as a means of making money or improving the company's reputation, the truth is that this can actually end up damaging your brand rather than enhancing it. That’s not to say you can’t promote your CSR initiative — you can, but you have to make sure you do so tastefully which we’ll discuss later in this article.
4 Ways Businesses can Kick Start CSR Practices
A company that wants to improve its social responsibility efforts may choose to focus on a number of different activities and approaches. Below we explain how a company can denote resources, change its products or services, give back to employees and contribute to supporting the environment.
With a growing interest surrounding brands that take their earthly responsibility seriously, we thought it would be the optimal time to break down the 5 best environmental campaigns on social media in recent history.
1. Donate resources
Corporations can embrace corporate philanthropy by making strategic donations to causes. For example, you may wish to donate a percentage of your profits, sponsor an event or hold an employee volunteer day.
Remember, just because you’ve parted ways with some cash, that doesn’t mean that you’re putting your money where your mouth is. For that to happen, you need to embody the values of the nonprofit you’re partnering with, which in turn, means you need to walk the talk. With this in mind, it’s best practice to find a nonprofit that’s responsibility aligns with both your company priorities and that of your audience.
2. Make changes to your products or services
For CSR to work, it’s important for companies to look in the mirror and, as Gandhi said, “Be the change they wish to see in the world.” These changes could be anything from making your packaging eco-friendlier or, on a bigger scale, ensuring corporate social responsibility in global supply chains is closely monitored.
If your business takes on the responsibility to evaluate, rework, or make the product more socially responsible, make sure this is communicated by business leaders. You can’t expect stakeholders to know what’s happening behind closed doors; communication plays a key role in how socially responsible a brand is perceived.
3. Support employees
Adopting practices and programs that support employees is another way to demonstrate social responsibility. During the pandemic, research found 90% of consumers said that it is important to them that brands take care of their employees, with a further 49% expressing how businesses treat their staff as one of their top five purchasing considerations. Beyond ethics, workplace happiness helps productivity and employee engagement, so being socially accountable is a win-win situation for all!
Check out Comparably's ranking of the top 100 highest-rated companies with the Happiest Employees to learn more about what defines being a great place to work. (P.S. Look out for Meltwater on the list!)
4. Act global, think local
It’s easy to get swept up in the idea of grand changes on a global or national level, however, contributing to local social responsibility programs is equally as important. For many businesses, local customers are a key source of sales, therefore, company prosperity depends on favorable conditions within the community. Some local authorities also prefer to award contracts and tenders to businesses that take on the responsibility of getting involved in their community, so having them on your side is a massive win.
Community involvement is a great way to humanize your brand, this can take many forms including contributing financially to local projects or supporting nearby schools or community centers.
What to avoid when it comes to rolling out a CSR strategy
Asserting commitment to CSR and actually adhering to practices are two different things. As mentioned earlier, companies that don’t walk their talk are at risk of being perceived as frauds, and there's a growing list of terms that people are using to describe such organizations.
Greenwashing refers to making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental social responsibility benefits of a particular company initiative or decision. In doing so, companies create the illusion they’re more ethical and environmentally friendly than they really are.
You may remember Heathrow airport coming under fire for this a few years ago? The public slated its eco-sanctuary living wall and Garden Gate as merely an attempt to mask its expansion plans with a proposed new runway.
In our blog “5 Signs of Greenwashing—And How to Avoid Doing It Yourself,” we highlighted greenwashing signals to watch out for, including:
- Making environmental social responsibility claims the company is already legally required to provide
- Lobbying against measures behind the scenes—while leadership and comms regularly deliver pro-environmental messages
- Putting inaccurate environmentally friendly claims on your labels
Wokewashing is a term used to describe when companies cynically prey on customers' social responsibility awareness by adopting the veneer of progressive values using progressive-orientated marketing for profit.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing an increase in marketing pros commodifying social movements and piling on to the latest cause to “out-purpose” the competition without taking the time to check their own company values and culture. Who remembers Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad which many claimed appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement? The drink giant's tone death ad failed at its attempt to position itself as both a protest drink for key challenges in the world and as having the power to heal tensions.
In the wake of the brand crisis, we used Meltwater’s media intelligence tool to track the sentiment of Pepsi before the ad launched and after. As you can see, the reputation plummeted after the ad release and for some time after. Fortunately for Pepsi, judging based on their brand sentiment they recovered from the crisis, but not all brands are that fortunate.
The United Nations defined slacktivism as when people support a cause by performing simple measures, but they’re not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.
The term is often synonymous with viral movements, which are coming thick and fast in the form of various social media challenges (The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, the no make-up challenge for cancer research, and the black and white picture challenge that helped raise awareness of femicide in Turkey, etc).
The problem with armchair activism/slacktivism is that people often join in because they like the feeling of being a part of something rather than wanting to change something. For example, nobody really knew the foundation of the black and white picture challenge was linked to femicide in Turkey. Instead, many thought the challenge was more about girl power and used hashtags like #womensupportingwomen to accompany the photo. The message, like so many others, was lost.
Maybe slacktivism doesn’t deserve as bad of a rap as it has considering it does bring awareness, but these days a brand’s good intentions need to be exceeded by their CSR actions for them to be considered worth it.
CSR disconnect between your vision and your audience
The social corporate responsibility areas you choose to invest in should align with urgencies in your wider macro environment (for example, climate change), your company's vision, and audience's interests. Swing too much either way and you risk losing company focus or interest from your audience. Understanding company focus is easy as it’s something you have control over, but getting to grips with the psyche of your consumers is a little more challenging.
How to make your CSR activities successful
Before you launch your own CSR program, make sure you are being transparent about your motivations & actions, letting your audience inform your actions and listening to the responses you are recieving.
1. Be transparent with your responsibility efforts
Audiences aren’t expecting a complete overhaul of corporate behavior overnight, but they do expect progress. So, define what corporate sustainability means to you and then identify pathways to effectively address this definition. Get all stakeholders involved to commit, establish goals and monitor corporate behavior and progress. Transparency is key here, so don’t forget to share results — both good and bad.
2. Let audience insights guide you
Invest in audience insights to ensure there is no CSR disconnect between your vision and your audience. As Khumo Theko, trend spotter at Flux Trends, discusses, there are new urban tribes that brands should be aware of. One of her stand-out points is that consumers are consciously diverse; there are various groups that are connected, and socially motivated, but all stand for something different.
Meltwater’s Consumer & Audience tool allows you to get rich insights into the different segments and communities following your brand so you can quickly identify what they’re passionate about and find the shared CSR value sweet spot between your brand vision and customer.
As Jeanne du Plessis, Corporate Affairs and Citizenship Leader at Procter and Gamble South Africa said in a previous Meltwater webinar, it doesn’t do any good for businesses to storm in and try to fix things before talking to those affected by the problem. For instance, before you rush in to paint a classroom, take the time to listen. You need to understand the root problem to make a real change.
Corporate social responsibility examples
Today, it’s not just about having an impact on the bottom line, it’s about having an impact beyond business. Here are a few more examples of brands flexing their corporate social responsibility policy.
Corporate responsibility angle: Environment sustainability
Outdoor apparel and gear manufacturer, Patagonia, has been at the forefront of sustainability activism since the company’s 1973 founding. They even recently changed their mission from being product-focused, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” to one that is even more sustainability led, “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.” The mission goes as far as suggesting that financial performance comes second to the environment. In 2016, they proved this when they announced that they would donate 100% of Black Friday sales to sustainable organizations that benefit the environment.
CEO, Rose Marcario, also recently announced the company would donate the $10 million it saved as a result of President Trump’s 2018 tax cuts to environmental protection groups. Patagonia then explained how this sustainability initiative allowed them to help “hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations”. Such a significant public action helped solidify the company’s CSR policy and reputation for genuine dedication to sustainable causes.
Corporate responsibility angle: Social injustice
In recent years, Nike’s ads have largely stepped away from traditional formats and instead looked further afield to tap into the current culture of social activism, standing up for what you believe in and proving you have what it takes to win.
When American football star, Colin Kaepernick, was dropped by the NFL after taking a knee during the national anthem before a 2016 match in protest against police brutality, Nike launched a bold advertising campaign with Kaepernick as the star. The ad sparked protests and boycott threats against the brand, but their solidarity also won many over.
Fast forward to 2020, like many companies, Nike reiterated its stance on the Black Lives Matter movement, but more importantly, behind closed doors they also made changes. As mentioned on their site, during this past year, they’ve stepped up accountability initiatives in the areas of employee Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging to foster an inclusive environment and attract a more diverse employee workforce. What’s more, they’re driven by a commitment to transparency, accountability and impact and share their progress in these areas annually through the corporate responsibility Report.
Corporate responsibility angle: Employee welfare
One of Starbucks’ main CSR areas is staff wellbeing. Through its very attractive health insurance benefits scheme, Starbucks is better placed to attract talent, build retention and improve morale. Their corporate website also refers to employees as ‘partners’ to emphasize personal relationships, despite how large the company is, stating: “Starbucks succeeds when our partners do, and we believe that success is best when shared.”
Corporate responsibility angle: Investment in supply chain stakeholders
McDonald’s recognizes the strength and agility of their supply chain is grounded in strong corporate collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders. Their ongoing responsibility commitment is to support both the future of farming and work alongside supplier stakeholders to introduce sustainable innovations. They do this by providing them with access to knowledge, tools and best practice farming methods. The result? Increased stakeholder efficiency, productivity and profitability, all while preserving the planet over the long term. You can read more about McDonald’s CSR initiatives here.
With an increased emphasis on social responsibility, businesses can truly give more attention to the people and communities that rely on them, and not just their stock price or investors. Shifting these priorities will help companies develop long-term, genuine support from audiences and ensure future profitability.
Hopefully, this blog has answered questions such as what is the concept of corporate social responsibility?, what is the importance of corporate social responsibility? and how can I kick start my social responsibility of business efforts? For more insights on The Role of Corporate Social Responsibility in Marketing, click to watch our free, on-demand Webinar with P&G.