Recently, I shared the stage with Dr Jessica Vredenburg, an expert in services marketing and a lecturer at AUT, to talk about “viral CSR”. It got me thinking about the role business should play in driving a positive change in society.

In the past century, corporations were dominated by a capitalist mindset. At the worst end of the spectrum business was about maximising value for their shareholders with little regard for the environment, employees or even their customers. If something sold, that was all that mattered.

The revolution brought on by the introduction of the internet and then the rise of social media has resulted in a dramatic shift in power. The connected world we live in now is much more transparent and has introduced a different type of accountability that never existed before.

This change has resulted in some big brands being ‘found out’ and some new smaller brands, with loyal fans, growing faster than ever – think Dollar Shave Club, the Kiwi shoe brand or All Birds. However, this was just the start of what we are now seeing as the new marketing landscape.

Consumers are demanding more transparency; they expect to see and understand how companies source materials, manage their teams and care for the environment and the communities that they operate in. In an HBR and EY study, they found that 87% of consumers want brands to have a purpose beyond financial profit. Those that do, experience significant benefits in terms of better staff retention, customer recommendations and financial returns.

Today we look to big brands as having the power and duty to be positive contributors to society. Consumers are increasingly favouring brands that align with their beliefs and values and becoming fiercely loyal to them as a result.

So how can businesses ensure their Corporate Social Responsibility is meaningful and well received by today’s consumers? Here are three things to think about;

 

Be genuine

You can’t fake it in today’s society. Consumers are very quick to sniff out a brand that isn’t genuine. When done right, it will also be felt by suppliers as well as customers. Resulting in more people wanting to work with you, lower turnover, more favourable business deals and more consistent revenue growth.

 

Be relevant

The next test is to ensure your brand has a relevant connection to your CSR. For example, if you’re an athletics brand, then helping grassroots sports programmes or fighting childhood obesity are both excellent fits. However, sponsoring theatre or cultural events might not be. A car brand might focus on something that encourages people to explore. Or a beer brand could champion sociability or support music events.

 

Apply carefully

So how do you build your brand through a brand purpose? My two-word answer – with care! You should be careful about building an explicit brand purpose platform, unless it comes from the inside out, as a naturally sceptical public will pull it apart if it’s anything but 100% genuine. Use the purpose as a motivating force that drives the business forward. You can also use CSR as a motivational tool for your team, extending this to your existing customers then becomes a natural progression and can help build brand loyalty.

 

But I want it to go viral

Here’s an alternative point of view. If you want buzz right now, Jessica’s suggestion is to push the boundaries into a slightly unrelated area. Nike arguably did this by using Colin Kaepernick’s stand on police brutality. This message is unrelated to sport, but played out in a sporting arena and was delivered by an athlete associated with Nike. This approach may have more immediate traction, getting people to sit up and take notice of your stance on an issue that is topical and trending. While unrelated to the brand purpose, if it is delivered in a way that is related, it can generate conversation right now. But tread carefully, this is an experts-only tip!

It’s difficult to deny that CSR is something that all businesses need to consider to ensure they remain relevant in today’s transparent marketing environment, but for long-term brand building, it might be best to avoid putting it in a starburst and slapping it on your packaging. Let your purpose come from your core and the benefits will follow.

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