The Advancing Leadership Blog

Why exactly are you doing CSR?

Today it seems every company is asking how to engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR). That’s a good thing.

However, I don’t see nearly enough companies really digging deep and asking why.  That’s bad.

I’m old enough to remember the first dot com boom. I was creative director of a big, full service agency – newly staffed with over 50 programmers and web designers. Clients were clamoring to get online. But few of them could explain why.

Eventually, most of them figured out there was no why – at least not yet. The bubble burst.

Now fast forward a few years.

In 2005, Al Gore’s hockey stick graph created a frenzy of corporate green activity. A short while later, Wal-Mart made it OK for mainstream companies to adopt eco-efficiency (“Did you know they’re making money at this thing?”) Despite some growing pains, corporate green has matured into something resembling adulthood, inching closer to becoming business as usual.

Today, sustainability indexes outperform the S&P. Renewable energy is, in many markets, reaching parity pricing with fossil fuels. Green building, recycled materials, corporate eco-efficiency and eco-innovation are all par for the course.

What I haven’t seen, however, is consistency in the way brands leverage their green attributes.

On one hand, you have companies like Adidas. Being German, Adidas is well-versed in sustainability and a leader in the field. But being German, they’re also understated about the whole thing, largely refusing to brand their green innovation. The result – a big brand differentiator left on the table, unclaimed.

On the other hand, you have companies like BP. Remember Beyond Petroleum? I believe this still stands as the single most awesomely overstated green brand promise I have ever seen. Prove me wrong.

In the middle, there’s the rest of us. Companies that believe CSR isn’t an option anymore, but wondering how to best turn it into a meaningful brand differentiator.

Here’s how.

Why do you exist?

In his now ubiquitous TED talk, Simon Sinek describes how great movements always start with an understanding of why they exist. No, this doesn’t mean ‘to serve the customer’ or ‘to make people smile’. Unless you’re Zappos, statements of this ilk are just a weak excuse for not digging deeper.

It means really understanding your deep down, core purpose. Why. You. Exist.

Assuming you’ve done the painful self-examination, and you’ve discovered your reason for being. Undoubtedly, this revelation showed its worth almost immediately, guiding everything from the sort of products you innovate to the sort of people you hire.

It should also determine the way you brand your green.

CSR = RTB

Let’s say you run a bank’s CSR program. Your bank’s brand is built on straight talk. It’s up to you to figure out which one of your many CSR initiatives to attach to your brand.

Is it the charity run you host each year? Your partnership with a ‘transparency in banking’ initiative? Or an employee volunteering program?

Although each initiative is worthwhile, the second is the only one that reinforces your straight talk brand. It’s a reason to believe your brand walks the talk, and gives consumers who believe in straight talk another reason to bank with you.

Future trend?

If this sounds like something that should be apparent to all brand managers, take a look around. How many established brands have CSR initiatives that reinforce their brand promise?  Not many.

Now look at the number of startups that have CSR baked right into their brand. Buy a pair of Toms Shoes, and Toms gives a pair to someone in need, for example. A much higher number.

The fact so many established brands haven’t figured out how to align their purpose with their CSR, and so many startups have CSR baked right into their brand, should be an indicator that this could be a signpost to the future.

So if you’re still staring at the whiteboard, wondering how to leverage your CSR, take a look a bit further back. It could pay to revisit your brand’s purpose first.

Marc Stoiber is a TEC Canada Speaker who helps business owners and CEOs futureproof their business. This blog was first published on his website at marcstoiber.com. You can contact him on 1-778-839-5689.

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