What is the purpose of corporate social responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is very much the byword of today’s global, socially aware economy. From Ben & Jerry’s equality ice creams to Procter & Gamble’s ‘Best a man can be’ campaign, it seems that there’s big business to be made in going ‘woke’ and wearing your values on your sleeve. But what is CSR in practical terms, what are its limitations, uses, and misuses? And, more importantly, what can it do for you and your company?

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CSR in a nutshell

To be blunt, CSR is a business practice that both recognizes and prioritizes social awareness, environmental factors, and ethical labor practices while promoting a greener, more culturally conscious attitude to both peers and customers. The general ethos is we want you to invest in what we stand for first, and our product range second, albeit a very close second.

As CSR expert Susan McPhearson explains, recent events have “changed the mainstream discourse about the role corporations should play in advancing and addressing social and global challenges”. Put simply: CSR is becoming something of an expectation. You could argue that it sounds like a PR stunt that panders to an untapped demographic, but is that an overly simplistic view of a business phenomenon that has taken over the way in which companies market both themselves and their products? 


More than just PR?

While the sudden implementation of social and cultural messaging can come across as trite, especially if the company and the cause don’t gel in the minds of the consumer, the incorporation of CSR and a strong, ethical message – one that backs up an already existing mantra or narrative – can both attract and retain talent, and help grow a potential business beyond its existing demographic. This approach worked well for Nike, who tapped into the zeitgeist with its civil rights campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. So, why didn’t it work for Pepsi?

When it comes to lacing your brand with a social, cultural, or political message, it’s important to measure not only the market but the climate, too. Tapping into the zeitgeist may seem like a sure-fire way of increasing sales, but the dangers of alienating a client base or, worse, an entire demographic in today’s highly politicized society, could prove disastrous.



Making ‘woke’ work

When we boil it down we are left with a simple truth: people respond to emotional issues that they care about. Part of making CSR work means investing in a social issue, idea, or ideology that allows you to tap into a previously unobtainable demographic. If you can also show your customers that you not only have a great product or service, but you care about the same issues that they do in a sincere and transparent way, then half the battle is won.

In order to tiptoe around the pitfalls that have plagued other companies who have tried their hand at ‘woke-dom’ and failed, avoid using CSR as a one-shot ad campaign for a service or a product, which could backfire due to the social climate and the ever-changing cultural tide (see Gillette, for example). Think about the long-term projection, and promote the message that what you’re doing is here to stay. Link the message intrinsically within the core of who and what your company is, and what it is that you offer and do. With CSR it’s all about clarity and consistency.

Finally, consider the impact of CSR not only on your business but the culture, too. Investing in a year-long advertising campaign and championing a social cause may seem like a good way of increasing sales and keeping up with the competition, especially when everyone who’s anyone is doing it, but be aware of the line between pursuing a cause and taking an idea too far.


With great power comes great (CS) Responsibility

While CSR can be an effective marketing tool, it’s worth considering the long-term socio-cultural cost of the endeavor, and the way in which it will impact your business and the society as a whole. Avoid the desire to appear ‘on trend’ by jumping on the latest social justice bandwagon, and be consistent in your messaging. Above all else – don’t fake it. Customers respond to open, transparent, and genuine messaging. If you are to invest in CSR, make it specific to the core values of the company, otherwise, it could look like you’re being insincere, and, let’s face it, nobody wants to be remembered as the company who broke the Internet for all the wrong reasons.

Instead, be one of the good guys.


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