Why CSR should be part of your Marketing Strategy

By: Chris Middleton

August 30, 2016


Customer Experience - Featured -

It’s no surprise that social platforms have helped make customers more socially and environmentally aware. The clue’s in the name: we don’t just share memes about ‘me, me, me’, we also talk about our society and our communities, and more and more companies recognise the importance of doing the same.

With great power comes great corporate social responsibility (CSR), and many organisations are fast waking up to the need to express their brand values in ways other than simply making great products.

So much so that CSR now goes right to the heart of 21st Century marketing. But those companies that are guilty of ‘greenwashing’ themselves, or of making false claims or massaging the facts, will be held to account by their customers – using the same social platforms. Just ask VW.

Your story and your actions need to be one and the same thing.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, some billion-dollar corporations, including Salesforce.com and Google/Alphabet, now place their social and environmental credentials centre stage at customer events, via real-world CSR initiatives such as the Salesforce Foundation and Google.org, which invest in community action and non-profits. In the coffee business, the Costa Foundation has comparable aims.

In this way, CSR is not only something in which these companies actively invest time, money and effort, it’s also a good story to share. Customers like it and buy into both the products and the world view – as long as the story is backed by genuine action.

Such initiatives have another benefit: they pile pressure on competitors to do the same. CSR is now so important to marketing (not to mention the planet) that people will criticise rival companies that don’t push a similar community, environmental, or sustainability message – even if they love their products.

Over time, this creates a feedback loop into mainstream media coverage, which is one reason why (in the IT sector, for example) Apple’s apparent lack of a public stance on community investment or charitable donations has become part of the story people tell about the world’s largest company.

Yet this contemporary need to paint a greener landscape around a marketplace, and to give something back to communities beyond local employment, is having some interesting knock-on effects. And marketing is at the centre of these, too.

One of these is the birth of an organisation called Collectively, which in 2014 created a social platform to share stories about sustainable innovation and ethical sourcing worldwide.

CEO Will Gardner told me:

“Collectively is founded on the belief that the world’s challenges are far too big for any one organisation to tackle on its own, and therefore collaboration, between individuals and all different types of organisations, is key if we want to make sustainable living the new normal.”

However, behind Collectively’s excellent ‘community platform’ look and feel are several long-established multinationals. So is the organisation simply ‘greenwashing’ corporations such as Nestlé (whose track record on CSR has been called into question many times in the past)?

Gardner is adamant that isn’t the case. He said:

“Collectively’s partners are in the coalition because they are committed to improving the way they operate from a sustainability perspective.

“Collectively was inspired by conversations at the World Economic Forum between a group of founding companies – Unilever, The Coca-Cola Company, Marks and Spencer, BT Group and Carlsberg – but has since grown to include almost 30 major multinationals [including Google and Nike].

“We have also been joined by non-profits, Forum for the Future and Purpose. We are now actively extending the coalition to include smaller mission-driven brand companies, NGOs, and youth organisations.

“We respect that all companies are on a journey and everyone has to start somewhere. We want to make sure that everyone who joins believes in our shared mission and is prepared to take meaningful, tangible and impactful actions to contribute to its success, both within their own companies and as a whole.

“They also need to be prepared to engage in the debate, and be actively looking to improve the sustainability outcomes of both their business models and their industries.”

Good news, and the platform claims to be editorially independent of its founders.

In 2014, Gardner was seconded from his role as VP of Global Marketing Projects at Unilever to head up the organisation, and before that he was VP of the Unilever Way of Marketing, Unilever VP of Marketing Strategy, and previously held other blue-chip marketing positions.

This isn’t to say that Gardner’s and Collectively’s aims aren’t genuine, merely that the importance of an experienced marketing leader to the project’s success was also core to its foundation. However you look at it, it’s about telling a different story for the future – and Gardner is aware that people will tell stories about Collectively too.

So what can marketers learn from this? To answer that, let me share a story of my own.

Last year I met former Fox Business News anchor, Alexis Glick, at a retail event in New York. She has set aside her successful career to set up a non-profit for kids, which brings together her two passions: mobile technology and sport.

She told me how important mobiles are to young people. Not exactly news, you might think! But Glick told me this not because of all the obvious reasons that teens like mobility and social networking – speed, accessibility, surface, convenience – but because of a very different one: their depth.

In the US, she said, teenagers want to know where things are sourced, what materials are used, whether a company is ethically sound and its products sustainable, or if production is outsourced to countries with poor labour rights. They get all this data via their mobiles.

They spy before they buy.

So the lesson for marketers is clear: the next generation of customers wants your business to be sustainable and ethical. They want you to invest in their communities. And they’ll use the same platforms that you do to hold you to account.

So tell them what you’re doing – and don’t let them down.

Image (c) joethegoatfarmer.com