Ensure brands talk responsibly – or make CSR a waste of time

Too often a company’s CSR strategy and brand communications are handled in isolation to each other. If an ethical stance is to be convincing, the two must be melded, says Matt Willifer

Corporate social responsibility is now an essential part of company strategy as boardrooms appreciate its importance to their business – and their stakeholders. CSR is concerned with a company’s positive impact on the wider world – whether it is the environment, the workplace, the community or the supply chain. When it works best, CSR succeeds in improving the world in which it operates; but also, through better stakeholder relations, in improving profitability.

In the climate of greater awareness among consumers, there is no doubt that brands could benefit from a greater emphasis on CSR. After all, it is increasingly important to promote CSR as genuine corporate strategy, and the brand is the most public – and publicised – face of a company.

Furthermore, agencies should become gatekeepers for companies’ forays into this rather opaque world. Any such initiatives require the specialisms that agencies provide: namely deep CSR knowledge, brand understanding and creativity. Yet there are two problems when agencies just assume this role.

The first relates to the client context in which agencies operate. Within corporations, CSR and the brand have little to do with each other – either as concepts or as closely aligned departments. At worst, this can lead to inappropriate CSR initiatives that adversely affect the reputation of the brand – think Cadbury’s Get Active programme, which was derided as being little more than active encouragement for children to eat more chocolate. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s involvement with sport in schools also springs to mind. As does Wal-Mart trumpeting its CSR credentials, which only makes commentators all the more determined to trumpet its reputation for being a bad employer.

However, more common is the case of brands “ticking the CSR box” with no real idea of how it is meant to deliver profit, with limited resources devoted to it, and with precious little link to the brand. We see logos half-heartedly and inexplicably associated with causes, and initiatives supported for no reason other than being close to the chairman’s heart. While these probably don’t do much harm, it is unlikely they do much good.

The second problem is the agencies themselves: too many remain ill-equipped to deliver the necessary detailed critique on the feasibility of companies adopting a CSR stance, let alone translating it into a tangible resource for brand enhancement. Communications agencies simply do not have the depth of CSR knowledge, or the capability to audit a client organisation. On the other hand, CSR agencies don’t know enough about branding, or have the creativity required to bring an idea to life.

However, an agency that combines these specialisms or which creates a strategic alliance with another is ideally placed to offer such a CSR service. If agencies can get it right they should be best placed to be the experts in brand responsibility – the place where CSR meets brand communications.

Brand responsibility should not supersede CSR but supplement it. While CSR – a range of initiatives across key areas – remains the essential foundation, brand responsibility is something that complements it – it is the big idea, inspired by CSR, that a brand can own.

Executed correctly, brand responsibility can deliver a number of advantages. Most fundamentally it provides the brand with a real emotional benefit. It can also build an impression of a brand that is trusted and human; which demonstrates confidence and thought leadership.

A CSR programme might, quite rightly, encompass a range of initiatives, most of them (acceptably) undifferentiating. Brand responsibility, on the other hand – using the logic of brand strategy – should aim to own a single big and differentiating idea. It should enhance brand image, and it should be taken seriously and have an impact on every element of its behaviour. Otherwise it will be seen for what it is: a company paying lip-service to something that the board could not give two hoots about.

And it should be consistent. Nike, for instance, has done well promoting anti-racism in football; however, its highly publicised supposed use of child labour does not sit comfortably with its chosen CSR strategy.

Unless and until communications and CSR agencies co-operate they will short-change clients. Agencies need to appreciate the importance of CSR and not consider it a bolt-on expertise.

Matt Willifer is executive planning director at Heresy

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