Why Customers May Never Care About Your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

A few interesting studies have been released recently that look at the “Green or Corporate Social Responsibility Movement.” I like to focus on how it impacts customers. So a few recent stats to consider:

  1. Your messaging isn’t memorable. Over 70% of North Americans are interested in the CSR of the brands they buy, but most can’t identify which brands are socially responsible. (The Shift Report)
  2. Your messaging isn’t believable. 12% of consumers “seldom or never” believe green claims, while 65% will believe green claims “some of the time”. (Burst Online Insights)
  3. We don’t know what “Green” really means. Almost 50% of us believe that products marketed as “Green” or “Environmentally Friendly” have a positive (i.e., beneficial) impact on the environment. Turns out that green or environmentaly friendly products are only about being less harmful than prior versions or competing products. Only 22% of us understand this distinction. (2008 Green Gap Survey)

So it’s still a bit early in the CSR movement and the road to success isn’t fully paved, and some confusion in the market is expected. But a general lack of trust from customers in advertising claims and corporate motivations isn’t going to help. Corporations are still focused on the single bottom line of profit, versus the triple bottom line of CSR (profit, people, and planet).

Why isn’t your messaging memorable? Beyond the general skepticism out there, CSR messaging often misses because customers “don’t get it,” as it doesn’t fit with the profile or strategy of the business. It’s what Jim Collins refers to as the distinction between “inputs and outputs of greatness” in his Good to Great for the Social Sectors. Most businesses focus on the input (“how much money do we make per dollar of invested capital?”), but to be memorable, businesses need to focus on the outputs (“how effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?”).

Being a good corporate citizen requires CSR efforts that typically fall into one of five areas:

  1. Responsible business practices
  2. Environmental initiatives
  3. Cause marketing
  4. Corporate giving (philanthropy)
  5. Employee engagement & volunteerism.

All of these efforts impact customers’ perceptions and attitudes. But they need to fit the profile and strategy of the business. It’s not good enough to do these things just for the sake of doing them. Well, it’s certainly better than not doing them. For CSR to be sustainable it needs to be part of the DNA of the business. Drug companies need to partner with the organizations that help those with the diseases their drugs target. Auto part chain stores need to be involved in driver education so we have fewer accidents. Home builders need to partner with organizations that help the homeless. Credit Unions and banks should foster financial literacy/education in our schools and communities. It’s about making a difference at the root cause of an issue that a company and it’s employees have both the knowledge and desire to get behind. These CSR strategies fit the company profile, consumers will “get it” and feel their purchases will have an impact beyond the business’s profit motivation.

In the abscence of data, one needs discernement. CSR is a struggle, and most leaders want to see the data that tells them it’s the right thing to do. We don’t have all the data, but deep down a business leader who is any good should know it’s the right thing to do. Anyone can look at data and make a decision, but in the abscence of data, the best leaders of our time have proved their worth through their ability to discern the right decision, the best next step.

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4 Responses

  1. Great info., but it actually comes as a surprise to me. I really thought that more people were being responsible consumers. I do believe, however, that we will see consumers’ impact on CSR grow wider in the future as they become more aware and conscientious of the companies they support. While I think at first “being green” may have only been perceived as a trend, we are coming to realize that is has to be a way of life in order to have a sustainable future. Please visit http://www.thoughtrocket.com for more commentary on the subject.

  2. Will, thanks for the comment. I was surprised as well. I think part of the reason for the low percentages is the general dis-trust of marketing messages by consumers. As CSR grows, and consumers get credible information they can trust their impact on brands and companies will be more apparent. It should become more apparent to consumers that CSR it is not just another marketing message. Like you say, it is much bigger than that, and should speak to the hearts and minds of consumers, as well as their wallets.

  3. CSR is a term (and acronym) that most consumers don’t understand. Their is a lot of conflicting messaging in the media about CSR vs Cause vs Green; it is no wonder consumers can’t remember who is doing what.

    Perhaps breakthrough when companies begin to engage their customer base in this movement. Rather then being something customers “watch” companies do, they can help get involved in their efforts.

    It just might work. 🙂

  4. I agree there is a lot of confusion Becky. I guess that is to be expected as companies try to find gain from their messaging in this new arena.

    I agree that companies should involve their customers for greater impact. The best CSR initiatives include a business’s customers, and usually start by engaging their employees.

    I was recently introduced to a CSR effort that fits nicely with the business’s strategy/profile. It’s http://www.helpstophunger.org sponsored by Sodexo, the food and facilites management company. Now that makes sense to me.

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