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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Let Customers Co-Create Your Cause Marketing


cause_marketing.jpg  According to the 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Survey, 87% of us “are likely to switch from one brand to another (price and quality being about equal) if the other brand is associated with a good cause, an increase of more than 31 percent (from 66%) since 1993.”  The study also found that 89% of employees familiar with their company’s cause program feel a strong sense of loyalty to their company.  Cone’s chairman and CEO also stated that “When companies inspire their workforces in this way, employees will be proud and loyal and will carry forward positive messages about their companies to their families and friends.”  And let’s not forget about that positive message getting to customers as well.

The study found that:

“Many companies are choosing which issues to support based on where they can deliver the most meaningful business and social results to their stakeholders. Nine in 10 Americans say companies should support causes that are consistent with their responsible business practices. Eighty-seven percent say they want a company to support issues based on where its business can have the most social and/or environmental impacts.”

For companies that do support causes – who chooses the cause to support?  Does the quote above mean that the CEO, or Board of Directors, or investors, or employees choose?  Hey, what about having the customers choose where your corporate support goes?  After all, if you didn’t have customers buying your products and services you wouldn’t have resources to donate.  Maybe try something along the lines of Amex’s The Member Project , where members vote who will receive the funds from Amex.

You can support more than one cause, or more than one organzation as well.  Let’s say your customers want you to support local schools.  If you have multiple divisions or locations, you could donate funds to each of the schools in the same community as each of your locations.  Find a way to co-create your cause marketing strategy with your employees and your customers, so that “your” cause becomes “our” cause.