How the Future of CSR is Changing Brand Management

Matthew Sell
Matthew Sell

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CSRAs modern marketing evolves, so too does the art of contemporary brand management. Brands have always reflected the needs, desires, aspirations and anxieties of the consumers they service. Today is no different. During the last 20 years, social consciousness and responsibility have become engrained in public discourse. From Live Aid to Comic Relief and from “An Inconvenient Truth” to “The Day After Tomorrow,” we have seen the reality of poverty, inequality, deprivation and resource scarcity become more and more normalized. The modern media and entertainment industry have helped accelerate the debate. What previously may have been dismissed as a niche scientific discovery or academic developmental theory has morphed into a modern mainstream narrative.

The Impact? Caring Now Matters

For brands, this swing to a more responsible reality represents an intriguing problem. Modern brand management has created brand stories that thrive on integrity, honesty and openness. In fact, brands are among the most trusted institutions of modern life and frequently outstrip the government, media and other professional service organizations. Their early grappling with consumers’ demands for more responsibility led to the development of the first corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. These were largely passive responses to minimize the negative social impact of a business.

But now we are seeing an emergent and more socially assertive agenda by brands. The campaign for conscious capitalism led in the U.S. by Starbucks and Whole Foods Market, or the direction Unilever is taking towards its own brand management as it puts sustainability at the heart of its business (with the aim of improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact, and enhancing livelihoods), demonstrates a new and more direct approach that uses social consciousness as another attribute lever. However, in taking this more active approach — and frequently marketing around it — brands are finding it harder and harder to manage the debate. Expectations are increased, parameters are widened and questions around credibility are raised.

The current debate around international corporate taxation is a case in point. It now appears that failure to pay a reasonable contribution to the Exchequer leads to the media marking the corporate entity as irresponsible and opportunistic, regardless of its wider contribution to the economy or the dynamism of its CSR program. “The Corporate Tax Dodge,” a New York Times opinion piece by Wall Street financier Steven Rattner, is a recent example of the media taking a stand against some companies’ corporate taxation behavior.

As a result, brands need to stop and think.

What should change going forward? How should brands think about evolving to better navigate the domain of social consciousness in the future? The key to this is the ability of brands and corporations to protect themselves from suggestions of opportunism and the inevitability of behavioral contradiction. There are three distinct strategic steps that brands can take to help advance their platform of social consciousness:

1. Increase Confidence and Clarity Regarding Priorities

If tension arises between the establishment of a corporate social consciousness and its ability to maximize profits, then clarity of purpose becomes an immediate consideration. The confirmation of profit would help most in this situation as the central plank for continuing development. Profit has to remain the primary and central drive of the business. This is not capitalist, backward-looking profit at all costs. The initial level of corporate consciousness should first mitigate against any social damage caused and then recognize that labor and the supply chain require nurturing and management. But the argument must be made that profit creation is the prerequisite of wider social good. Without addressing this argument, brands leave themselves open to suggestions of hypocrisy and double standards.

2. Create a Tangible Social Dividend

Consumers must start to recognize the direct link between corporate profit and progressive social distribution. If the impact of wider social responsibility simply raises product unit cost, then the initiatives will fail. Consumers need more transparency. Going forward brands need to show explicit and demonstrable measures that link profit to progress. Brands would benefit from establishing a proportion of profits that can be reinvested. This social dividend is a clear ring-fenced budget that grows as corporate profits grow.

3. Establish a Credible, Expert Narrative

Distribution and administration of social programs should be left to the experts. Not only does their involvement help mitigate any suggestions of bias or manipulation, but their likelihood of success is higher. Brands should “let go” and trust professional partners and affiliates to maximize the force for good that accrues from their initiatives.

In today’s media-savvy world, it is down to agencies to be more proactive in pitching CSR programs to clients and advising them on the crucial importance of linking profit to progress. Brands do not need to apologize for making profits, but they do need to give something back — paying social dividends is the key.

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