What is corporate social responsibility, and why should marketers care about it?
Marketers are sometimes associated with some pretty negative terms: annoying, interruptive, manipulative.
“Ouch. What’s up with that?”
Well sometimes, whether we like it or not, it’s our job to market the actions of our company. And sadly, sometimes businesses make poor decisions. Or sometimes they’re perfectly justified decisions, but they fail to consider the long term negative impact of those decisions … like environmental degradation, layoffs in a certain community, or chronic health problems.
Eesh. No wonder we look like jerks when our job relies on trying to find a positive spin (or just plain detract attention from) these unsavory stories.
So bearing that in mind, does it then fall on marketers’ shoulders to also be thinking about long term business strategy? Should we pop out of our normal bubble of thinking — lead generation, social media, website redesign — and enter a new field in which we try to better understand our business’ impact on society? In other words, should corporate social responsibility be a part of your marketing strategy?
First, what is Corporate Social Responsibility?
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is essentially an ethical plan. While you can read a bunch of long and fancy-sounding definitions, in its most basic sense CSR is understanding the results of your actions within the various communities associated with your brand. It’s about making the ethically and morally correct choices.
But if you do want the Wikipedia explanation, “CSR is a process with the aim to embrace responsibility for the company’s actions and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere who may also be considered as stakeholders.”
So, there, I hope one of these definitions helped explain the concept of CSR.
Why is Corporate Social Responsibility important?
The CSR landscape is more critical today than ever before. Decades ago, the world was run on sovereignty. (Stay with me here. This won’t turn into a political science post, I promise.) A country or state, or some government body, regulated how the world was run. Its actions impacted the state of the economy, and its regulations dictated how issues were solved.
And while that still remains true to varying extents, businesses are now taking over as rulers of the world — even if they (and we) don’t see it that way. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate how.
Steve Jobs hated Flash. Plain and simple. As a result, none of the Apple products — iPad, iPod, iPhone — were Flash compatible. Just these past few weeks, 5 million iPhone 5 devices have been ordered in the United States. Even further, CNBC reports that half of all U.S. households own at least one Apple product. So it’s probably not a stretch to say that the overwhelming number of Americans using Apple products has had some impact on the diminishing use of Flash, right? While Steve Jobs likely had no direct intention to alter that market, he indirectly did by the decisions he made to restrict Flash from functioning on his company’s products. Was he responsible or irresponsible? One could argue either way. But there is some component of social responsibility there.
In Q4 of 2011, Whole Foods started their plans to open a store in Jamaica Plain, Boston. While they simply saw it as an expansion of their business, the residents of Jamaica Plain were outraged. Not only would this new store replace the previous local grocer in that exact location, but it would suddenly raise the costs of groceries for that neighborhood — going from a no-name small business to an organic chain store. All the employers of the local store — some working there for over 10 years — were now out of a job. Should Whole Foods have considered these societal effects before making their decision? Did they even think about it?
You may have heard our recent announcement of opening a headquarters in Ireland. While we see it as an expansion of our business and an opportunity to help improve marketing across the globe, the result of our new office is 150 new jobs in Ireland. Suddenly, the Irish press is having a field day discussing the wealth of employment opportunities emerging for Dublin. The actions of our business decision were not just about us — they impacted an entire community thousands of miles away from us. People we don’t even know!
What Does CSR Have to Do With Marketing?
Who had to communicate the fact that Flash isn’t compatible with Apple products? Marketing. Who had to deal with the protests that emerged from the new Whole Foods store? PR (a subset of marketing). And who had to create content around the announcement of our Dublin office? Marketing.
Even if marketers aren’t ultimately the people making these decisions that so widely impact various societies and social settings, we have an integral part in the messaging and communication of it. Therefore, when we discuss our plans, consider our opportunities, and prepare our campaigns, it might behoove us to think about what the responsible route to take is.
In fact, data from Group M shows that being responsible is directly tied to purchase, with 51% of consumers wanting to reward responsible companies with their business, and 53% saying they’d pay a premium for products from a responsible company.
So wait … doesn’t that mean that being socially responsible could be used as a messaging strategy in our marketing campaigns to help increase revenue?
You bet it does. Some even believe that CSR serves as a marketing tool. In a recent article on the Malaysian Reserve, RockCrops CEO Muhammed Zharrif Afandy says, “We are strong advocates of corporate social marketing. It is not just about tapping into your CSR fund. This is the message that we intend to deliver to our clients. It is not about just doing community service simply because it is the right thing to do. It also can benefit SMEs on marketing and branding levels. It is a matter of merging together CSR with marketing. It can be a lot more valuable not just to the community but also to business as well.”
How to Merge CSR and Marketing
If you agree that there should be a CSR and marketing convergence, there’s a few ways to start doing so for your own company.
1) Do Good for Good, Not PR
Looking for some good press? How about you align ourself with a cause and donate a bunch of money?
While those donations will helpful, aligning yourself with a cause for the sake of PR is… bad PR. Additionally, corporations donating money to a cause isn’t exactly a novel idea, so it should’t be a surprise if no one is chomping at the bit to toot your horn.
Instead, focus on being socially responsible. What does your business do — something that’s reflective of your company culture — that could translate into positive, feel-good deeds? The best PR professionals will say that PR is extremely easy and fun to do when your business just does remarkable things that others naturally want to talk about.
2) Think Long-Term, Not Short-Term
The CFA Institute published a paper titled “Breaking the Short Term Cycle,” where the authors discussed the trending obsession with short term results. They coined the term “short termism,” which means that an excessive focus on short term and quartlerly results destroys long-term value. Essentially they’re arguing that by focusing just on the results of today, a business doesn’t think about the potential detrimental effects of tomorrow. When you plan your marketing campaigns — for example, is that blog post going to alienate some of your future potential audience? — don’t jump the gun for the purpose of buzz alone. It could backfire if you haven’t considered context and long-term plans for both your company and society at large.
3) Voice Your Concerns & Ideas
Many marketers avoid poking their nose into the business impacts of their organization because they don’t think it’s their job to do so. But communicating how those impacts could affect your ability to do your job really should fall under your purview. I mean, if your business wants to launch a new product or expand locations, and those actions will have a negative social impact … it’s absolutely your job to raise your hand and say you won’t be able to market the decision. You know, as a marketer. And if their move will have a negative social impact, there’s a good chance it will have a negative business impact, too. Addressing these hurdles before it’s too late should make everyone come out a winner — community, marketer, and business owner alike.
Sparking these CSR discussions within your business can help create plenty of positive buzz that you can employ in all aspects of your marketing:
Email Marketing: Segment messages about your new initiatives to those who will be impacted by them.
Social Media: Publish positive content that others will want to share out of excitement and appreciation.
Public Relations: Pitch stories to local or national outlets who will want to discuss your initiatives because of their impact on the community.
What’s your take — should marketers be concerned with the notion of corporate social responsibility? Yes or no, and why?
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