Building A Brand Through Purpose: The CSR Approach
If you’re looking to stand out, you have to speak up.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can seem overwhelming, especially if your organization manages to get by without it right now. But why would anyone choose to get by when they could flourish? No one dreams of building a brand that flounders and fades into the background.
Now, more than ever, people care about who they do business with. The age of the informed consumer isn’t going away anytime soon, and it’s easier than ever for audiences to learn about companies’ manufacturing standards, inclusivity policies, and stances on socio-political matters. When it comes to consumer expectations, 70% look for brands to take a public stand on social issues, and 86% will take their business elsewhere if brands refuse to be transparent on social media.(1) People aren’t hoping to hear from you—they’re expecting to.
The most memorable brands have trained themselves to look at their impact on the world and use that information to influence their future practices and messaging.
With the right approach, the benefits of CSR far outweigh the risks. Any company, no matter how small, can seize this opportunity to use socially responsible practices to do some good while refining their brand’s voice, reducing employee turnover, and strengthening sales.
Some may think CSR is as simple as donating to a worthy cause, but there’s a big difference between writing a check and making a lasting impact. Choosing a socially responsible model of conducting business isn’t a singular action. It’s a process, a consistent practice of intentional, thoughtful choices.
Researchers define true CSR as four, interconnected elements:(2)
• Economic – creating profit in a sustainable manner
• Legal – executing and enforcing law-compliant practices
• Ethical – conducting practices aligned with social expectations
• Discretion – carrying out practices that exceed expectations
When missing one of these four components, CSR isn’t present, and that can sow seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds. Why would someone trust a company that does great things, but does so illegally, unsustainably, unethically, or unexceptionally? It’s impossible to be truly great if any one of those adverbs is attached to what you do.
If every choice you make is interconnected, every one of them needs to be made for a reason. Putting intent behind every decision is the key to long-term CSR success.
This can sound like a lot of work, but it’s actually pretty simple in practice. If your organization wants to help homeless animals, doing so with CSR in mind could be as simple as volunteer work with local shelters, in-office supply drives for foster organizations, sharing social posts for adoptable pet meet-and-greets, and offering pet-friendly services to employees. All of these relatively easy actions can be done sustainably, legally, and ethically while going beyond consumer expectations as seen with Tito’s Vodka.(3) Just make sure all of your business practices are aligned with this mindset. Nobody likes a hypocrite. CSR is all about smart strategy combined with meaningful action. Without one holding up the other, the structure weakens.
Risky Business? Think Again.
Evolving your brand to align with a strong CSR model isn’t simply meant to make the world a better place—it offers the chance to improve your company’s revenue, recruitment prospects, and workplace culture. The short- and long-term benefits far outweigh the perceived risks. Consumers are more likely to choose brands that practice socially responsible behavior.
In a survey investigating consumer behavior across 60 countries, 55% of shoppers are willing to pay a premium for products and services with positive social impacts(4)
The benefits of CSR go far beyond consumer brand loyalty and behavior. Internally, a socially responsible work culture improves employee outcomes as well. Lower turnover, higher levels of job satisfaction, and increased productivity are all benefits of CSR.(5) In a world where work and life are more intertwined than ever, jobs have taken on new meaning. A company’s impact is a key factor in prospective employees’ decision-making, with over half of U.S. employees reporting that they would take a pay cut for a job that matches their values.(6)
Nothing strengthens a brand like the bulletproof combination of consumer and employee loyalty. Time after time, research has shown that investments made in CSR initiatives do more than pay for themselves—they actually increase profit.(7) So how do you choose the right CSR strategy? The answer is simpler than you think.
Be Your Own Think Tank
With so many causes and organizations to choose from, adopting CSR policies involves choosing from an endless list of possibilities. How do you make the ideal choice for your brand?
Think about what your team is passionate about and what you support in your own time. Do you pet every dog that passes you on the street? Do you hike on the weekends? What about something more personal, like dropping everything to help your friend with a chronic illness? Adopting CSR initiatives that speak to you and your team on a visceral level makes it easier to see the forest through the trees. If you know exactly why something matters to you, it’s easier to adapt to new policies. Initiatives tailored to your passions can also make it easier to attract prospective employees in line with your company culture.
When choosing a CSR initiative keep these guidelines in mind:
Think small – oftentimes, there are charities and organizations in your community tackling the very issues you’re most interested in. Partnering with local organizations is an easy way to make a direct impact on what matters most while giving overlooked programs the advocacy they deserve.
Think big – once you have a cause, think about what you want to accomplish down the road. Would your team be more proud of 1,000 meals given to hungry families, or 1,000 books read to kids at after school programs? There’s no right answer; it depends on the person. Focusing on what would bring a smile to your face makes it easier to choose between programs that help similar causes.
Think for yourself – think beyond the standard-issue volunteer t-shirt and get creative. If you’re passionate about outdoor spaces, are your workplace policies as green as possible? Little things like signing up for composting services and skipping the plastic cutlery on catering orders make a big deal. Or, if you’re passionate about women’s education, analyze what services you offer to employees in-house and even take a look at how your suppliers are advocating for women. Thinking about the entire chain of production will maximize your CSR initiative’s impact.
More entrepreneurs than ever before are launching companies specifically built to make a difference. CHNGE, The Girlfriend Collective, and The Phluid Project are just three of the countless brands making waves in the fashion industry. Each uses a top-down, transparent approach to their manufacturing standards, environmental impact, and even champion LGBTQIA+ advocacy in groundbreaking ways.(8, 9, 10) Their fresh approaches to combating some of the world’s biggest social and environmental issues show that CSR stimulates creativity where it matters most.
Progress, Not Perfection
Truly effective CSR initiatives aren’t set in stone—they’re designed to grow and change. Without consistent reflection and monitoring, even the most famous CSR programs can ultimately end up harming the very cause they care about.
TOMS, known for its one-for-one business model, is a perfect example. With every pair of shoes purchased, they gave a pair to a child in need. It sounded great in practice, and for a long period of time many analysts cited it as an excellent CSR strategy. However, TOMS noticed that their one-for-one initiative started to do more harm than good. The shoes donated to isolated communities in Africa were harming villages’ internal commerce. Local shoemakers couldn’t compete with the free ones available through the program. So, what did TOMS do? What every exceptional CSR group does—adapt.(11)
Instead of ignoring the negative impacts of their policies, TOMS’s leadership ended their one-for-one program and now donates 1/3 of their profits to small, grassroots organizations.(12) At first glance, choosing to put a stop to an initiative tightly intertwined with their brand’s success sounds like a mistake. But that’s not an accurate assumption. TOMS didn’t become famous simply because of a single program; they became famous because their brand prioritized corporate social impact. Shifting to their Grassroots for Good CSR initiative is still fits with their original company ethos. Through their transparency and adaptability, TOMS actually avoided damage to their brand in the long run.
Even if your CSR initiatives seem small at first, they still make an impact.
Whether that impact is positive or negative is up to you. Take time to evaluate and reevaluate exactly how your policies are affecting the social issues you’re looking to tackle. If they can be improved, make those improvements.
No CSR initiative is perfect right off the bat. Progress, not perfection, is what matters.
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Article References: (1) Marketing Drive (2) International Journal Of Management Reviews (3) Tito’s Vodka (4) Sustainable Brands (5) BetterUp (6) Deloitte (7) Business Ethics (8) CHNGE (9) Girlfriend Collective (10) The Phluid Project (11) Fast Company (12) TOMS