CSR, sustainability with a small “s,” sustainability with a big “S”; these are just a few of the terms floating at the C-suite level that are overused and misunderstood. At Cone, we define corporate responsibility (CR) simply as aligning a company’s business practices with the expectations of its stakeholders.
Although many companies have been facing and addressing CR issues for decades—such as diversity, workplace practices and environmental stewardship—most have struggled with clearly and succinctly communicating how these business practices are relevant at the brand level.
Consumers still expect strategic philanthropy and community investments, but they also expect more. Customers such as retailers want to know how you are helping them achieve their CR goals. Socially responsible investors want evidence of strong CR practices before investing in your company. Prospective employees, especially millennials, want to be part of something bigger, something that can make a positive impact on society.
At a macro level, stakeholders expect companies to address the issues and impacts related to their businesses. They don’t expect perfection, but they do expect greater transparency and openness. We see these expectations as a new brand opportunity.
Of course, every opportunity comes with risk. According to the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker, nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product and 37% will boycott the company’s products entirely if they feel misled by environmental claims.
Given the complexity of many CR-related issues and the realities of operating a business, communicating CR requires a realistic and credible strategy combined with precise communications. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:
â–¶ Pitfall #1: Characterizing CR as strategic philanthropy.
• Philanthropy is only one component of CR. If your philanthropy is not aligned with the reality and impact of your business practices, your company can be accused of “cause-washing.” For example an extractive company, such as oil or natural gas, cannot credibly address environmental impacts through philanthropy alone.
â–¶ Pitfall #2: Failing to communicate how a company’s products and services address societal needs.
• Communicating the purpose of your business is the most important and authentic part of CR. Every business fulfills a societal need. Own it. For example, Chipotle is all about good food, which today must include demonstrating respect for animals, farmers and the environment.
â–¶ Pitfall #3: Not integrating CR commitments into the brand experience.
• Countless companies create a CR report and stop. That’s “checkbox” CR. Data must be turned into stories that can add depth to the brand.
â–¶ Pitfall #4: Drinking the company Kool-Aid while avoiding the critics.
• CR communications won’t work unless a company analyzes itself through the eyes of its skeptics and critics. So engage with them—the reward can be new opportunities to solve problems and improve your business.
Here are some tips to align your CR with your brand goals:
• Be True to You: Focus communication on the issues that are material to your business. Timberland (a Cone client), a brand with a tree as its logo, focuses on protecting the outdoors, innovating products to reduce its environmental impact, improving lives and engaging communities through service.
• Don’t Believe Everything: Conduct due diligence to understand the business reality. Sometimes natural ingredients or greener packaging decisions, for instance, are based on cost vs. lack of availability; find out the real reason before communicating your CR positions.
• Bundle and Brand: Make sure the major components of your CR strategy are a natural part of the brand and product story. Create a branded platform that threads the disparate CR commitments together. Pepsi’s Performance with Purpose and Starbucks ’ Shared Planet are some good examples that tie CR issues effectively together.
Effective CR communication can create a new dimension for your brand, differentiate it from competitors and increase affinity among your consumers and customers.
Jonathan Yohannan is a senior VP and head of CR at Cone, a Boston-based PR and marketing agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.