If the politically charged ads during the Super Bowl broadcast were any indication, companies are becoming more confident about taking potentially controversial stands on social issues. In 2017, that brazenness could take their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts deep into areas that go beyond canned food collections and holiday toy drives.
The trend of consumers expecting companies to take stands on issues has been on the rise for some time, with “brand purpose” increasingly taking on a higher profile in their minds. A survey by Havas found 75% of consumers expect brands to make a contribution to their quality of life, but only 40% believe they do. Yet make no mistake that doing so pays: The survey found the stocks of “Meaningful Brands” more than double the performance of stock indices on average.
“There’s a growing body of research that shows customers–both consumers and enterprise decision makers–expect the companies they buy from to act responsibly and stand up for issues that matter,” said Holly Campbell, VP of corporate responsibility at Adobe (CMO.com’s parent company). Millennials—a very socially conscious generation–soon will be 50% of the workforce, she noted, so their expectations are part of this dynamic.
“We believe that CSR is an important dimension of our brand, both for our customers and for the top talent we work so hard to attract and retain,” she said.
Issues That Matter Most marketers point to community relations as their reason for becoming socially active. Consumers are asking for more consciousness from the companies they do business with, they said.
“Our corporate social responsibility is not simply driven by consumer demand, but by acknowledging as a team the importance of giving back and being a part of our community,” said Rudy Tauscher, general manager of Sofitel New York.
The hotel prioritizes CSR efforts, both on its own and through its parent company, AccorHotels, such as the latter’s Plant for the Planet environmental program and WATCH (We Act Together for Children) against sexual exploitation. Locally, it held a blood drive benefitting the New York Blood Center during Accor’s annual Solidarity Week. It also raised funds to feed the homeless with a Love Lottery promotion for Valentine’s Day benefitting The Bowery Mission.
“As a large hotel, we have the ability to vastly effect change among both our ambassadors and our guests,” Tauscher told CMO.com. “From raising awareness of a cause to implementing sustainable initiatives of our own–if we can, we should.”
But despite all the good intentions, marketers also agree that, eventually, CSR efforts must bear some ROI, with scale and metrics to demonstrate their effectiveness, insiders said.
“On any given day, our CSR team receives numerous requests for support from organizations that touch nearly every cause imaginable,” said AT&T’s Charlene Lake, senior VP of public affairs and chief sustainability officer. “We make it our job to understand the impact these organizations are making on the individuals and communities they serve, and we view ROI through that lens.”
The company wants its efforts to help companies that are driving real change and factor that social ROI into the business ROI as well, she told CMO.com. “Done right, cause programs will deliver to both social and business bottom lines,” Lake added.
CSR Standouts Solid examples of cause-related marketing run the gamut of issues from female empowerment and responsible drinking to education to aging. Following are five examples to get you thinking about your own initiative.
Adobe Adobe’s socially conscious marketing has evolved from a community relations program at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters in the ’80s and ’90s to a global portfolio today focused on education, environmental, and community initiatives.
Adobe partnered with leading arts and youth organizations around the world in Project 1324, a new initiative to empower the next generation of creatives to use digital media to speak out on issues. It also partnered with the Sundance Institute, which hosts the Sundance Ignite 2016 challenge for young filmmakers.
“With Project 1324, we’re extending our digital media solutions to young creatives who want to use their art for social change,” Campbell said. “It’s a good example of aligning our business with a social need that we can uniquely support, leveraging our technology and the skills of our employees to make an impact.”
Anheuser-Busch The brewer has long had a Better World initiative that targets three main areas: environmental conservation, responsible drinking, and community issues. In early 2017, it launched an effort in six cities around the globe to study and reduce the harmful use of alcohol as part of its Global Smart Drinking Goals initiative, which aims to reduce harmful alcohol use by 10% by 2020. The program will work with local organizations and leaders to study harmful drinking behavior and build initiatives to reduce it.
The company’s history of social responsibility goes back to 1914, and its alcohol responsibility programs are more than 25 years old, with efforts such as Family Talk and Know When to Say When, said Katja Zastrow, VP of CSR Better World, A-B’s CSR platform. They’ve always been part of the company culture, she said, but acknowledged that consumer and employee expectations are shifting.
“We’re seeing more of that. We’re seeing that from our consumers, our employees, our shareholders, [and] potential shareholders. There’s a real interest in making sure the company is doing good and doing the right things,” she said. “It’s probably more than ever, but it’s been part of the company’s DNA for so long.”
AT&T The telecom company has invested $350 million in education from 2008 to 2017 through its AT&T Aspire initiative, aiming to increase the U.S. high school graduation rate to 90% by 2020. The program provides technology for schools, online courses in technology skills, and support to developers creating teaching tools. AT&T also sponsors the Aspire Mentoring Academy, which pairs employee mentors with students.
AT&T is involved in a number of social initiatives, such as the “It Can Wait” effort against texting and driving, but education is important because it can affect all aspects of society, Lake said.
The next generation’s jobs will require skills too many of today’s students don’t have access to, which go well beyond science and math, she said.
“AT&T is in a unique position to help address this gap,” Lake told CMO.com. “If a company of our size can continue to identify the ideal intersection of technology and education–and the endless opportunities born as a result of that intersection–it will be enormously beneficial to all students, and to society as a whole.”
Dannon The Activia brand, which has mainly directed its efforts at touting the functional attributes of probiotics in yogurt, pivoted in its latest campaign to a message of female empowerment.
Through research, the company found 85% of American women feel they are their own worst critics, and that insight powered its new “It Starts Inside” campaign. A generic healthy-eating campaign would not be as effective in achieving the goal of building an emotional connection with the brand, said Carolina Cespedes, Dannon’s senior brand director for Activia.
New spots feature real-life stories of women overcoming obstacles to achievement, starting with their inner self-critics. The campaign kicked off with a spot featuring Sarah Thomas, the first female referee in the NFL, and a partnership with the educational group Girls Who Code.
“We’re not renouncing our functional benefit. On the contrary, we’re trying to make it more focused on the solution than the problem, as in the past,” Cespedes said. “That allows us to become more credible as a brand.”
Activia is monitoring reactions to the new campaign and, as it starts planning for next year’s, is thinking about using the feedback to evolve the effort, Cespedes told CMO.com. The overall reaction so far has been “overwhelmingly positive,” including many mothers who say they are showing it to their daughters to encourage them, she said.
Merck At last year’s Cannes Lions festival, Merck introduced its WE100 initiative to the industry by unveiling research that showed the elderly experienced disengagement and disappointment with life in general. Merck’s program, inspired by the insight that humans will soon live to be 100 as a norm, aims to target the political, social, and health issues surrounding living to an advanced age. The idea behind We100 is to inspire young people to bond with the elderly and learn from them, said Atilla Cansun, CMO of Merck Consumer Health.
The company began by rolling out the initiative internally through the end of 2016, and in early 2017 launched We4You, an initiative in the U.K. to promote the integration of the elderly into society by interacting with them and sharing their stories via social media to bring attention to their needs. Another initiative, Gen100, will kick off in March in South Africa with school programs that offer learning materials to kids 10 to 16 years old to teach them how to stay healthy and prepare for a long future. Health care professionals participate in the program.
Following the tests in the U.K. and South Africa, Merck will roll out the programs around the world. The rollouts will likely start in late 2017, Cansun told CMO.com.
“One takeaway from the recent votes, especially in Europe, is that leaving behind the elderly is not an option for the society,” he said. “We are therefore convinced that the WE100 initiative ... will reignite a new awakening in the society to appreciate the value of inclusion and diversity.”