latest war in Iraq and the increased threat of global terrorism have
had a profound effect on politics in this country. Not only have
events in the Middle East managed to galvanise and motivate many
(but by no means all) previously apathetic young people. Additionally these
events have managed to erase from the radar, for the time being
anyway, other pertinent political issues that were previously
gaining significant momentum.
One of these issues was the growing tide of
anti-capitalism, which up until three years ago had become a movement in its
own right, culminating in the 2001 anti-globalisation demonstrations that took
place up and down the country. Whilst the irony of seeing some marchers walking
in Nikes and drinking a skinny latte was not lost on many of us there was,
without doubt, a serious rise in consumer disaffection and disillusionment at
Today, this movement has been silenced, and for
much of our media it is yesterday's news. For many young people in Britain the
threat and reality of terrorism (Bali, Madrid) has worked to put their own
lives in context. As one young respondent recently put it - 'At the end of the
day, who gives a shit about where you buy a burger from when you could get
blown up tomorrow'. However, whilst in the short term negative publicity in
this area has been diluted, it would be foolish and naïve to believe it has
gone away forever.
If we hypothesise that the topic of
globalisation will once again become mainstream, it follows that
business should be exploring, in more detail, ways in which consumer
concerns and grievances can be alleviated
One way companies can strive to do this is via
'corporate social responsibility' (CSR). Whilst an industry buzz phrase four or
five years ago CSR, like the concept of anti-capitalism itself, has also ceased
to be front-page news (no prizes for guessing the correlation!). Since November
2001 The Guardian has been publishing what it calls 'The Giving List';
highlighting which of Britain's top 100 companies gives the most to charitable
causes, whilst exploring the impact this has on business and consumer
perceptions. Interestingly, whilst the cash value of donations has increased in
recent years, only 34 of the FTSE 100 gave 1% or more (of their pre-tax profits
to charity and community projects), and the bottom 14 gave 0.01% or less.
Overall, the share contributed by the UK's 860,000 businesses has shrunk from
4.8% to 4.3%. Although the issue of CSR has become less publicly salient in
recent years, it remains a topical business issue and it is those companies
that continue to champion the cause who will expect to benefit should the topic
become big news once more. However, it is within this concept of 'benefiting'
that much of the CSR debate lies. Should companies be entering into CSR with
benefits to business a key strategic objective? Or should CSR be an act of
natural compassion where business interests, for a moment, take a back seat?
There is no doubt that CSR, done in the
correct way, can have a positive impact on a company at both an image and sales
level, regardless of what the real intention of the company is (i.e. they may
claim they are not setting out to benefit business, but could do so
indirectly). Conversely, CSR done badly can result in negative publicity for a
company and a consumer backlash. Whilst the line between success and failure
can often be thin, there are certain measures that companies can adopt to
ensure the CSR initiatives they enter into are embraced positively.
Key to this are honesty, integrity and
sincerity. For some companies, caring - for example for the
environment and underprivileged people - is simply a responsibility
they can and should act out.
Typically, this ethos starts from the top and
permeates down through the whole organisation. Boots, for example, has a
history of CSR dating back 150 years, and embraces CSR as a matter of company
culture, viewing it as an integral part of the way they do business. However,
for Boots, their approach to CSR is not just about vast financial
contributions. They also operate a far more subtle approach, which identifies
more specific needs within both the local and global community - for example a
community investment centre in Nottingham, re-cycling and re-distribution
projects, and work with aid agencies in disaster zones. Not only does this
demonstrate insight and awareness, it also illustrates their real commitment to
the concept of CSR.
Another such company is the maverick hi-fi
retailer Richer Sounds, which has been involved in charitable activity since
its creation in the late 1970s. It donates over 5% of its profits to charity,
whilst also involving itself in other areas. In 1994 it set up the Persula
Foundation, which enabled it to widen the scope of the good causes it helps.
Its projects have included homelessness, disabled people, human rights,
bullying, multiple sclerosis and animal welfare.
For companies such as Boots and Richer Sounds,
the benefits of CSR are significant. Whilst financial objectives are definitely
not part of their CSR drive, the compassionate image their work projects
definitely has a role to play in terms of creating, retaining and growing a
loyal consumer base. Negativity is avoided due to the fact that consumers
recognise the work to be responsible and genuine. In addition, the internal
benefits can be equally dramatic. It is argued that staff naturally become more
socially aware, better motivated and more productive. At Richer Sounds
employees are actively encouraged to work on charitable projects out of the
office on paid leave, something they believe is key when considering their very
low turnover of staff.
Whilst the work of some companies is admired
and respected, much CSR activity is greeted with a large degree of cynicism.
According to a MORI poll released in November 2004 only 15% of the population
believes that large companies are genuine about being responsible. Most at risk
are those companies who adopt questionable production techniques or manufacture
potentially harmful goods, as any schemes are simply seen as an attempt to
offset negative publicity. However, ill thought through CSR can have a
detrimental effect on any company, regardless of industry type. Tokenistic
gestures and over promotion are sure-fire ways of convincing the consumer that
a company is more concerned with business issues than social responsibility.
Additionally, for many companies CSR can simply be viewed as an unnecessary
cost, rather than an opportunity to build long-lasting external relationships
I recently discussed these issues in an
interview with the corporate fundraising manager of a leading UK cancer
charity. He explained that the majority of companies have yet to truly embrace
the real essence of the CSR concept. He believes many of his clients are simply
too concerned with short-term image boosting and immediate commercial success
and that they often show little empathy for the cause they are championing.
As he explains:
a lot of impatient people around, who want results yesterday. They need to
understand that an on-going, dedicated process of CSR will ultimately benefit
their organisation to a far greater degree. But only if their approach is
sincere and natural".
Closely linked to CSR is the concept of Cause
Related Marketing (CRM) which, roughly defined, can be interpreted as the
marketing of a company or brand, whilst simultaneously giving something back to
a specific cause. Like CSR, CRM has also had its critics. Commentators and
public alike have simply dismissed it as a cynical commercial ploy, designed to
exploit consumers whilst at the same time attempting to portray an empathetic
brand. However, as with CSR, properly executed CRM can actually have a positive
impact on brands at both an image and commercial level.
At Egg we have conducted projects for various
clients that have explored the potential for, and the reaction to, CRM
initiatives in the context of their brands. Obviously it helps if the brand in
question has an uncontroversial public persona (tobacco and fast food
companies, for example, always suffer in this context), as this will often be
depicted as a cheap PR stunt by an organisation attempting to deflect negative
Our research has demonstrated that, whilst a
degree of scepticism often initially greets the CRM concept, a relevant scheme
can actually work to motivate consumers. One of the arguments in support of CRM
is that, if a brand is going to market themselves anyway, they may as well give
something back in the process. Additionally, it is recognised that commercial
business is in the financial position to give charitably, and hence should do
so. Also, many initiatives (e.g. football in the community, inner city play
centres) are felt to be complementing, and in some cases addressing the
failings of, local and national government.
During our research in this area, we have
identified specific guidelines for creating appealing and relevant CRM
Make it relevant - ensure a
link between cause and company. If the brand/product is a major cause of the
problem, it's a non-starter
Keep it local - (vs. global)
- creates the most interest and impact, ensuring that it can have effect in
Get the schools working for you
- (if aimed at children) - maximises participation and generates awareness
Make it inclusive -
facilitate participation where possible
Ensure it's sincere and believable - not
at odds with other aspects of company operations
Stick with it for the long-term - demonstrate
Tell them what you have achieved -
consumers want to know what impact their efforts have had
The CSR concept is a problematic issue that can
remain the archetypal 'catch 22' situation. By being seen to do nothing a
company runs the risk of being labelled greedy, selfish and profit obsessed,
whilst pursuing CSR can also lead to accusations of insincerity and hypocrisy.
For some, it is a no win situation. However, it should be recognised that CSR,
in addition to facilitating social and cultural benefits, can ultimately be a
positive commercial venture for brands, if executed in the appropriate way. If
corporate industry is to stave off or dilute impending consumer concerns then
it is vital that it attempts to grow a more compassionate skin, and recognises
that, as well as being super productive, it has the power to make a difference.
Many will argue this is something the business community should be attempting
to do anyway, naturally. Additionally, given the horrendous recent events in
Asia, and the huge public donations that have followed, it is possible that
consumer consciousness has been raised still further in terms of what companies
should be contributing to the worlds less fortunate. Ultimately, CSR is a
positive influence that should be encouraged, but it should be adopted for the
right reasons, and in the right fashion.
so many things, whilst consumers are ready to embrace it, they must
be treated with intelligence.
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