March 1, 2008

The Marketing of Corporate Social Responsiblity

Boston Herald.comThe following article by Chris Klaehn, Partner and Director of Account Strategy, appeared in The Boston Herald Business Today section on March 1, 2008.

Is our collective preoccupation with corporate social responsibility — judging companies by their contributions as good corporate citizens — a fad, a flash in the pan, a passing fancy? According to the prevailing wisdom, integrity pays. It pays to be the good guy; it pays to be socially responsible.

In marketing terms, it’s the art of doing well by doing good.

Who wants to support a company whose values are out of whack with the rest of society? The perception of companies driven primarily by quarterly sales figures and rising stock prices run the risk of appearing to be in business largely for themselves and little else — or so the argument goes.

But companies with a cause — those who tell us how, in the course of doing business, they’re trying to making the world a better place — want to create those critical emotional connections with customers — customers who have the potential to become their greatest evangelists.

This is not a new concept. Think Mobil and Masterpiece Theater. In fact, it has become a multi-million dollar PR specialty, with many large firms opening divisions to advise their clients on how to market their philanthropic and charitable activities.

Coca-Cola ran an ad in The New York Times letting readers know of its partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. Others are promoting their environmentally friendly products: General Electric, for instance, is marketing a line of energy-efficient light bulbs, washing machines that use less water and airplanes that use less fuel — all known under their “ecomagination” brand umbrella.

Timberland Co. is taking an edgy approach. It has attached a “nutritional label” to its shoeboxes that reports on the company’s social and environmental impact.

As The Wall Street Journal said recently, “Corporate-responsibility campaigns, once a backwater in the ad business, have taken off in recent years. Recognizing the rising fervor around environmental and social issues such as education, hunger and poverty, companies are devising ad campaigns to remind consumers of whatever do-good efforts they have made.”

Is there a downside, a marketer-beware here?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” Business confidence, post-Enron, is at an all-time low. Telling your clients that you use recycled paper and soy-based inks is not enough. Nor is anything that smacks of self-congratulation. Savvy information consumers that they are, buyers will see through these half-hearted efforts. Real social responsibility must be fundamentally tied to your core values, a reflection of what you and your organization stand for. Touting what you do for your employees, your community, your world must be an authentic reflection of your brand.

Companies need to be socially responsible to build their reputational capital, which is the underpinning of any brand they have to offer. A company with lots of reputational capital in the bank will be a company that more people want to work for, charge more for its products and services, and become more attractive to investors.

Corporate social responsibility initiatives — the equivalent of those popular rubber “cause bracelets” in yellow and other colors — show the world that you and your company care — about your global footprint, about the welfare of society, about your local community. If done well, there can be a significant marketing benefit from altruistic social programs. Take Target, for example. According to their Corporate Social Responsibility Report for 2007:

“We strive to ensure the ongoing health and strength of our communities by giving more than $3 million each week and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours in support of education, arts and social service organizations.”

CSR and branding are inextricably linked. The efforts that you and your company do to make the world a better place goes to the heart of what branding is all about. We make emotional connections with the companies and products that represent our own values. We naturally do business with the companies and people that we trust, who represent our beliefs, and whose values most closely mirror our own.

And this is the kind of brand that all companies hope for — a brand that is built on a rock-solid foundation of customer belief. The more closely aligned our value systems are perceived to be, the greater the chance that we will become devoted brand and product loyalists.


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