Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is all about stakeholder accountability, transparency in all dealings and sustainability. All this creates a 'responsible' halo around the business and helps companies build trust. It provides a platform of moral uprightness and establishes a company's reputation in the minds of customers and employees. And this is absolutely crucial for brands as it helps to attract and engage with customers on a continuous basis.
Companies must understand the two pronged approach that brand building calls for. Firstly, it is important to go about establishing the unique position of their brands in terms of quality or service or credibility in the minds of consumers. Secondly with CSR, companies must establish themselves as good corporate citizens. When a company can directly influence a particular problem or work towards a solution, it helps build a reputation and CSR in conjunction with regular branding activities can play a hugely influential role in impacting peoples' perceptions of a company, product or service.
A corporate or brand's reputation is only as good as what exists in the public mind today. Maintaining it requires consistent and committed efforts which may be challenging as the business grows and other complexities demand more attention, subjecting the brand to vulnerability. By understanding stakeholder expectations, CSR can predict and pre-empt possible issues in the future and mitigate risks very early on.
Organisations must therefore make it a regular practice to evaluate and pre-empt regulatory influences and pressures. Be it through their own systems and strict standards by looking outwards or even benchmarking with other international companies and their world class practices, even if the organisation serves only local markets. The ability to seamlessly combine brand building and strategic CSR should therefore not be confined to any specific departments within an organisation. Rather, it should be integrated into the processes and systems and be continuously evaluated and actively managed from within.
The problem is that too many organisations resort to 'green washing' purely for the purpose of public relations. These ad hoc philanthropic projects or short term environmental initiatives may well be unrelated to their business and have little value in building the resilience needed to truly enhance reputation amongst stakeholders. However if implemented in the right manner and with the right approach, brand building and CSR can perfectly complement each other.
Consider IBM's 'Smarter Planet' initiative. Launched six years ago, it was initially an advertising idea meant to communicate the company's intent to share knowledge, start a dialogue with customers, and inspire their 400,000 plus workforce to see value in their research and thinking. But the campaign was more than that; it was rooted in an idea that sought to make the world a better place. The 'Let's Build a Smarter Planet' agenda was a call to such action. Importantly, the initiative was rooted in the company's vision and on-going business practices and therefore fully integrated into the business.
Another example is Starbucks that has openly declared its commitment to conducting its business ethically. The company's Business Ethics and Compliance programme supports the Starbucks' mission and helps protect its culture and reputation, by providing resources that help its employees make ethical decisions at work. This programme develops and distributes awareness materials, including the Standards of Business; facilitates legal compliance and ethics training; investigates sensitive issues such as potential conflicts of interest; and provides additional channels for partners to voice concerns.
There are many such companies all over the world whose experiences show that integrating branding and CSR can build a corporate culture around responsibility leading to business sustainability.
This is the last of a 3-part series on strategic CSR and branding strategies.
Managing Director, Landor India
Managing Director, Brand Finance Lanka