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5 Tips For Marketing CSR In the Context of Our New Reality

From governance and diversity to environmental stewardship and philanthropy: how does a brand tell its CSR story?

Submitted by: Jonathan Yohannan

Posted: Aug 27, 2012 – 10:09 AM EST

Tags: csr, communication, cause marketing, csr strategy, walmart, mcdonalds, employee engagement, marketing, brand


By Jonathan Yohannan, Executive Vice President, Cone

In other words, how crucial is it to promote and market your CSR activities today? What’s changed and how should companies strike the right balance?

Learning From The Past

Corporate social responsibility’s evolution has been rapid. Just in the past decade, companies have embraced reporting to appease concerns ranging from activists groups to customers and socially responsible investors, taken to tailored cause marketing campaigns and switched their reporting from dense printed pieces to interactive web experiences with multiple opportunities for stories and compelling data presentation.

Despite all of that, the disparate nature of CSR topics, from governance and diversity to environmental stewardship and philanthropy, has made it difficult for companies to communicate and get credit for their commitments. In particular, it has been challenging to harness the power of employees who are not directly involved in CSR strategy to understand what their employers have been doing beyond distinct cause marketing activities. Similarly for customers, who might be familiar with unique programs but don’t necessarily tie those with the company's history, cultural bend and social/environmental activities.

In response, companies have worked hard to tie everything together through marketing handles or communications platforms. Two prominent examples include “Here for Good” from Target and Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity," representing companies that have effectively bundled, branded and communicated their CSR efforts from sustainable business practices to social investments. 

The Benefits of Marketing CSR: What's Ahead

For years, companies got away with releasing only what was absolutely necessary and nothing more. They claimed that they did the right thing but neglected to communicate their progress. As for their internal audience, the employees, many understand CSR issues and projects to be discreet initiatives, nothing that related to business operations – and therefore worth their time.

Today, however, expectations of customers, consumers, employees, and government officials have risen. Retailers like Wal-Mart, quick service restaurants like McDonald's and leading B2B manufacturers and service providers are pressuring suppliers to deliver on their sustainability goals to drive consistent, efficient and ethically produced products.

Consumers are seeking information on the connection between efficacy, value and sustainability. Prospective employees are looking to work for a responsible company. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission is taking action by recently requiring transparency and disclosure of conflict minerals in supply chains.

Unless a company begins to brand, communicate and engage with stakeholders in a consistent and effective way, stakeholders will assume the company is doing nothing.

CSR-branded campaigns are helping companies with better marketing leapfrog others with more established and responsible business practices with companies getting credit on sustainability rankings and lists merely for being transparent versus actual performance, which may seem counterintuitive.

For example, is SC Johnson more sustainable than Clorox?

How does Apple stack up with HP? The truth is, it’s hard to tell – the complexity of issues, the density of data, the incomplete nature of rankings and slick or nonexistent communication makes it murky for stakeholders to make informed decisions.

What that does mean for business, however, is that a company can easily leapfrog competitors by cohesively telling their CSR story. Today, performance is truly just as important as effective marketing in the marketplace.

Here are five tips for marketing CSR in the context of our new reality:

  1. Start Inside: Internal education and engagement is essential for the success of any CSR commitment and campaign. Defining CSR must work for the internal stakeholders based on the reality of business practices, their propensity for risk and desire for leadership.
  2. Brand or Bust: Branding provides a way to tie disparate assets together and provides a framework for key audiences such as employees to contribute and share the company’s story.
  3. Industry Matters: Understanding the material issues of the company are critical. While many companies focus on environment, philanthropy and diversity and inclusion, they may be missing compliance issues or areas that may lead to brand differentiation or leadership.
  4. Efficiently Influence: Focusing on a handful of sustainability or key opinion leaders in the social space can elevate your company’s profile dramatically. Gaining CSR notoriety can provide a halo for an improved reputation and drive core business objectives such as license to operate and sales.
  5. Measure Relentlessly: Know the end game. While CSR is a journey, it must deliver a spectrum of results every step of the way. Understand the urgency in the business and customize your marketing by audience and channel.

About the Author:

Jonathan has worked with countless B2C and B2B companies on Corporate Responsibility strategy and communications. He leads the Corporate Responsibility practice at Cone which has been recognized among the top Corporate Responsibility strategy and communications agencies in the United States. Jonathan is also an adjunct professor at Boston University teaching Corporate Communications.


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