It’s a consumer’s world, brands are just selling in it.
With endless options, companies no longer hold the power they used to over their customers. Now, loyalty must be earned, more importantly, maintained. Breaking customer trust can destroy decades of company growth in a matter of hours — making corporate social responsibility (CSR) a requirement.
In 2023, companies have learned that gaslighting campaigns & morally-questionable corner-cutting, just doesn’t fly the way they used to. With instant feedback devices glued to our palms 24/7, faltering on established brand ethics can be a fast track to bankruptcy. Companies now have to practice what they preach, or get off the pulpit, if they want to stay in business.
Brands looking to optimize on campaigns around social causes, have to look at their entire universe & journey with their customers (our team refers to this as “brand CX”). Committing to a code of ethics that they commit to stand behind & execute across all layers of business — or risk cancellation.
The rapidly evolving digital landscape has enabled consumers to actively participate in brand storytelling, forcing companies to practice transparency and align their actions with their values in real time and at scale. This is where CSR has become crucial, given its role in maintaining trust and integrity within a company — which pose direct impacts to profits and long-term viability.
As I discuss in detail below, CSR is a two-pronged system that only works if both portions are upheld by the company: (1) a company stands by the values it claims to have (2) it remains accountable for maintaining those values throughout their operations.
The key to achieving non-optical CSR is, of course, consistency.
Over time, consistency can create a sort of trustworthiness and loyalty that become necessary for a company’s long-term survival and growth. Unfortunately, it’s tough to navigate achieving consistency in an ecosystem that is constantly evolving. Many companies that have successfully grown for decades, now struggle to balance their CSR goals with the expectations of their target audience and brand values – posing substantial impacts that can damage a company’s image, as well as those in its metaphorical blast parameter.
Take for example, the controversy surrounding Bud Light’s giveaway with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney. Critics of the campaign attempted to spark a transphobic hysteria, calling for a boycott of Bud Light’s products. They claim that the beer brand has “forgotten their customers” and have taken a stand — mostly in the form of:
(a) social media posts
(b) drinking different moderately priced beers
(c ) buying & destroying Bud Light cans/cases (ala 52-year-old self-identifying-manchild musician Kid Rock).
The reality of the situation is that this campaign was actually very on point for the company’s brand values. Bud Light has a history of LGBTQ+ inclusive advertising since 1995 — which was done to give consumers a more inclusive beer option — in reaction to the homophobic messaging released by Coors Light around that time.
Where Bud Light fell short on their CSR was in their reaction to their critics, which opened up both their company to criticism & broke the trust of an established consumer base as well as their influencer partner.
Rather than standing their ground & leaning into their values, Bud Light put the executives behind the campaign on leave & has been doing “damage control” messaging. They alienated the customers that they have worked hard to prove they support for decades, playing the part of a fair-weather ally — a tough position to rebuild a relationship from. This highlights the importance of understanding the target market and aligning CSR initiatives with brand values.
On the flipside, brands with an established value system of inclusivity that they make every effort to stand by, are playing a winning hand. They are keeping their options open allowing anyone that identifies with their product to feel welcome.
Best practices for CSR involve a consistent commitment to a company’s values across all aspects of the business. For instance, if a company claims to support women, it must work to ensure equal pay, fair treatment, and opportunities for leadership among female employees. Companies must be wary of token gestures or contradictory actions, as these will erode trust and compromise brand integrity in both the short and long term.
By implementing the best practices below, organizations may be able to improve their brand image, customer loyalty, and employee satisfaction. Though, these tips should be implemented strategically and with a clear eye toward who one’s audience is (or is not).
Build the Roadmap — Develop a Clear CSR Vision and Strategy
The first step in implementing effective CSR practices is to develop a clear vision and strategy that align with the company’s values and business goals. This should include a comprehensive understanding of the social and environmental issues that are most relevant to the organization and a plan for addressing them through specific actions and initiatives. By articulating a clear CSR vision and strategy, companies can ensure that their efforts are focused, coherent, and capable of delivering meaningful results.
Engage Stakeholders in Decision-Making
Successful CSR initiatives require the input and support of a wide range of stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, investors, and community members. By engaging these groups in the decision-making process, companies can ensure their CSR efforts are relevant, responsive, and capable of achieving the desired impact. This can be achieved through various channels, such as surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings, and online platforms.
Integrate CSR into Core Business Functions
To maximize the impact of their CSR initiatives, companies should strive to integrate them into their core business functions, including strategy, operations, marketing, and human resources. This approach ensures that CSR is not treated as a peripheral concern but is woven into the fabric of the organization, influencing decision-making at all levels. By embedding CSR into their everyday operations, companies can drive meaningful change while also strengthening their competitive position.
Establish Measurable Goals and Metrics
One of the key challenges of implementing CSR initiatives is demonstrating their effectiveness and value to stakeholders. To address this issue, companies should establish measurable goals and metrics that enable them to track the progress and impact of their CSR efforts. This may include quantitative indicators, such as carbon emissions reductions, waste reduction, and workforce diversity, as well as qualitative measures such as employee satisfaction and community engagement. Regularly monitoring and reporting on these metrics can help companies identify areas for improvement and demonstrate their commitment to CSR to both internal and external stakeholders.
Foster a Culture of CSR
To achieve lasting change, companies must foster a culture of CSR that permeates every aspect of the organization. This involves creating an environment where employees at all levels are encouraged to consider the social and environmental implications of their actions and are empowered to contribute to the company’s CSR initiatives. Companies can achieve this through various means, such as providing training and development opportunities, recognizing and rewarding CSR champions, and incorporating CSR-related criteria into performance evaluations.
Collaborate with External Partners
Collaborating with external partners, such as NGOs, industry associations, and government agencies, can also greatly enhance the impact of a company’s CSR initiatives. By pooling resources, expertise, and influence, companies can tackle complex social and environmental challenges more effectively and efficiently. Additionally, collaboration can help companies stay abreast of emerging trends and best practices in CSR, enabling them to continually refine and improve their own initiatives.
Communicate CSR Efforts Transparently
Transparent communication is also critical to building trust and credibility with stakeholders. Companies should be open and honest about their CSR efforts, including both their successes and challenges. This can be achieved through various channels, such as annual sustainability reports, dedicated CSR websites, social media, and press releases. By communicating their CSR efforts transparently, companies can demonstrate their commitment to addressing social and environmental issues, while also building goodwill with their stakeholders.
Continuously Improve and Innovate
The field of CSR is constantly evolving, with new challenges, opportunities, and best practices emerging all the time. To stay ahead of the curve, companies should commit to a process of continuous improvement and innovation in their CSR initiatives. This may involve regularly reviewing and updating their CSR strategy, experimenting with new approaches and technologies, and benchmarking their performance against industry peers and global standards. By embracing a culture of learning and adaptation, companies can ensure that their CSR efforts remain relevant, effective, and impactful.
Assess and Manage CSR-Related Risks
Understanding and managing the risks associated with a company’s CSR initiatives is critical to their long-term success. This may include risks related to regulatory compliance, supply chain disruptions, reputational damage, and financial performance. By proactively identifying, assessing, and mitigating these risks, companies can safeguard their CSR investments and enhance their ability to achieve meaningful results.
Invest in Employee CSR Education and Training
Employees play a critical role in the success of a company’s CSR initiatives since their actions and decisions can significantly influence an organization’s social and environmental performance. To ensure that employees are equipped to contribute to the company’s CSR goals, companies should invest in education and training programs that build their awareness, skills, and commitment to CSR. This may include workshops, seminars, online courses, and experiential learning opportunities such as volunteering and community service projects.
Evaluate the Impact of CSR Initiatives
Finally, companies should regularly evaluate the impact of their CSR initiatives to determine whether they are achieving their intended objectives and delivering value to stakeholders. This may involve conducting internal audits, commissioning third-party assessments, or soliciting feedback from stakeholders. By evaluating the impact of their CSR initiatives, companies can identify areas for improvement, demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency, and ensure that their efforts are making a meaningful difference in the world.
As we continue to evolve and become more complex & connected, it will become even more necessary for companies to create positive social and environmental change to enhance their competitive position.
By using their brand guidelines as a compass and taking the steps above, companies can maximize the effectiveness of their CSR efforts by cultivating their customer relationship ecosystem — while also, hopefully, making a lasting contribution to the betterment of our world large.
About the Author:
Kana LiVolsi is a trusted growth partner and Brand CX expert for Fortune 50 & Industry Disruptors, as the CEO of Dos Mundos Creative. She has been recognized as one of the Top 100 CMOs alongside executives from Pepsi, Bloomberg & more and is a featured Speaker, Mentor and frequent Guest Lecturer that utilizes her skill set to advocate for muted voices. For over a decade, Kana focused on entertainment media, working w/companies such as NBC, HBO, Showtime, BBC, Nike & MTV, before transitioning to digital publishing industry, creating strategies for Harper-Collins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Conde Nast, Google, Apple, Sony and Amazon.