Society increasingly expects brands to give back at least as much as they take, and as a result, CSR is moving higher up the executive agenda.
However, many companies still think of CSR in terms of corporate philanthropy.
Although this thinking is more constructive than the mere guilt avoidance that characterised too much CSR in the 1980s, it misses a much bigger opportunity.
Brands that get CSR right don’t think of it in terms of obligation; they see it as a real opportunity to build mutual value for their brands and their communities.
Many of the world’s best-loved brands started out with a civic agenda at their heart.
One of the best examples is Cadbury, who went beyond offering world-leading working conditions to build an entire community around its Bourneville factory:
In 1893, George Cadbury bought 120 acres of land close to [the Bourneville factory] and planned, at his own expense, a model village which would 'alleviate the evils of modern more cramped living conditions'. By 1900, the estate included 314 cottages and houses set on 330 acres of land. [source]
Modern-day civic-minded brands have extended this sense of community beyond their own workers, and brands like TOMS are defining compelling new standards of ethical business with their ‘One for One’ business model:
Read more about TOMS's 'One for One' approach here
By putting CSR at the heart of the brand’s proposition, TOMS has created a truly ‘remarkable’ brand, inspiring so much admiration and interest that people feel compelled to share its story themselves:
— shannonrose (@ShannonBraddon) June 28, 2013
— Jessie Steinwand (@jessiestein99) June 27, 2013
Brands in the finance sector have also been more proactive in their CSR efforts in recent years, with brands like The Cooperative Bank offering what they term an ‘ethical’ approach to banking.
Brands are also increasingly using CSR as a cornerstone of their marketing.
American Express’s Small Business Saturday initiative has redefined the ambitions of marketers everywhere, driving billions of dollars in sales for small business, and delivering a huge boost to AmEx’s revenues in the process:
Indeed, Small Business Saturday has done so much to help communities across the USA that it earns the kind of endorsement that traditional marketing dollars could never buy:
My family & I started our holiday shopping at a local bookstore on #SmallBizSat. I hope you'll join & shop small this holiday season. -bo
— The White House (@whitehouse) November 24, 2012
Effective CSR doesn’t have to be large-scale to add community value though; brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Oreo have incorporated civic-minded messaging in their marketing too, taking a public stance on issues that they believe in:
Most people still recognise that these activities as marketing, but when the alternative is interruptive advertising selling things people neither want nor need, it's easy to understand why community-minded marketing gets more positive feedback across different audiences.
Giving vs Growing
Brands can also use community activities as part of market development.
A great example is Nike’s ‘Reuse-a-Shoe’ programme, where the brand recycles old sneakers to create surfaces for inner-city sports grounds:
Communities benefit through access to state-of-the-art sports facilities where they can exercise and train for free, while Nike benefits by getting people more actively involved in sports, thereby increasing potential sales and offering the chance to identify star athletes of the future.
CSR Should Be Win-Win
This ‘mutual benefit’ approach is the key to sustainable CSR success, and offers the greatest potential rewards too.
The obvious goodwill benefits that these activities generate mean civic-minded brands are more likely to be welcomed into people’s daily lives.
Beyond straightforward preference drivers, CSR can be a powerful part of a brand’s social media activities too.
At the most basic level, CSR initiatives offer brands a meaningful way to engage their audiences in conversation.
More importantly, though, audiences are far more likely to share their own stories about brands that make a real difference to people’s lives, and this sharing can result in powerful, organic conversations across social media and beyond.
So, instead of an approach that requires brands to reach into their coffers to relieve the corporate conscience, brands need to start thinking of CSR in terms of opportunities to add tangible value to a variety of stakeholders:
The brands that will win tomorrow won’t just give back to communities; they’ll actively nurture and build communities too.