It may have been easy to miss if you don't work in the world of corporate led cause related marketing, but Corporate Social Responsibility (or CSR) programs are in the midst of a crisis. The subject of the debate mainly centers around two big issues: brand value and authenticity. On the one hand, CSR programs are attacked by shareholder groups and business investors who argue that they are a needless distraction and remove money (and value) from the investors of a business. CSR programs are also attacked by industry watchdogs and groups who argue that businesses only engage in CSR programs to create an artificial connection with consumers and claim allegiance to causes they don't really care about.
On the other side, those who work on these programs make a more idealist argument – that companies can do well and do good at the same time. That doing something positive for a community or for the planet at large is not mutually exclusive with making money. And even if it were, that the duty of organizations to do this should be seen as a necessary cost of doing business. This is not a debate that is likely to be resolved anytime in the near future, but my position is that I am a big believer in the benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility. I teach a marketing course at Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact and have worked on dozens of CSR programs in my time managing marketing campaigns for clients.
Unfortunately, CSR is in a state of crisis today. To a large degree, this crisis is self inflicted – with many brands simply jumping on the bandwagon of popular causes such as the Pink Ribbon campaign for breast cancer simply because they were fashionable. Other brands have been exposed for "greenwashing" as a way to simply tell a story of being better or more ethical without actually living up to it.
The point of this article, though, is not to focus on the negatives of CSR or to lead anyone to the conclusion that it cannot work well. Instead, my aim is to try and offer a vision for how brands and the nonprofits they work with may be able to get past some of these barriers to collaborate on some real groundbreaking CSR programs that not only deliver results in terms of a positive impact on the world, but also can be viewed within a marketing team as having a value, effectiveness and ROI worth maintianing an ongoing investment in.
To that end, here are five fundamental keys to creating successful and believable CSR programs:
- Forge a real strategic connection. By far the biggest mistake that brands and nonprofits make is creating partnerships of convenience rather than strategy. An airline supports feeding the hungry, A clothing retailer supports more technology in schools. A bank supports breast cancer. This is not to say these aren't worthwhile causes, but the strategic link to a brand can often be missing – and without it, realizing real marketing value from a CSR program is difficult. Before committing to an effort, a brand needs to honestly assess whether the cause is the right fit … or not.
- More upfront involvement and ownership from causes. Though it is tempting to blame this lack of strategic vision solely on the brand, there is an element of blame for nonprofits as well. When it comes to crafting a CSR program, a nonprofit cause often takes a subordinate role because of the perception that they are getting "a favor" from the brand working with them. This is a mistake for several reasons, but most importantly because often the nonprofit is in an ideal position to advise on what people truly care about in relation to their issue and what is likely to influence their opinions. For any nonprofit that simply agrees to a do an ill-conceived campaign from a brand – not only will it not generate strong results, it may also impact your ability to get future funding and support from that brand. So if you're part of a nonprofit, get involved and be a vocal partner to the brands you work with. In the long run, they will appreciate working with you much more – and the results of your collaboration will be much stronger.
- Shift to long term focus versus short term. It is certainly no surprise that the inclination of most marketers is to think in terms of campaigns rather than longer term partnerships. This is particularly true when you consider the average CMO's tenure is about 18 months. With all these barriers, it can be tough to do something that lasts for a long time, but when you switch causes and allegiances every year or two then it is very difficult to build a perception in the consumers mind about what you stand for. The most successful CSR programs that are held in high regard and have returned enormous value for both the brand and an associated nonprofit (if there is one) are more longstanding efforts.
- Commit more than just financial resources. Giving money to someone is actually the easiest thing to do when it comes to CSR programs. Writing a check takes relatively little effort – what requires more effort (and belief) is TIME from the people that work for a brand. Yet this time is what makes a commitment real. Having real people working on a cause from your organization is what can inspire your people with a sense of purpose. It is also the real proof point that any customers or critics can point to as a demonstration of your real commitment to a particular cause and the fact that your commitment is real and not just greenwashing.
- Integrate programs instead of operating in silos. In many large organizations, CSR remains its own branch on the tree – which means opportunities for integration are often missed. Yet the stories that come from a well defined and executed CSR program can help to reinforce marketing messages, offer useful talking points for customer service, and great fodder for content creation for social media groups. The point is, CSR is best utilized if it is treated as a resource that is available to the entire company to help spread the story about. This can also help to combat the perception within many organizations that CSR efforts should not be actively talked about because this would mean "patting yourself on the back." While too much self congratulation can backfire, this should not prevent brands from talking authentically about the things they are doing.