Why Companies are Incorporating Social Responsibility into their Brand Identity

We spoke with cause branding expert Hope Freedman to get an inside look into how and why corporations are now incorporating cause into their overall brand strategy.

What is the first step for an organization to shift from being a brand to a brand “social change agent?” Who at your organization should identify and drive this change?

Organizations can approach the first step of pivoting their corporate or product brand to create more social impact in many different ways, so there’s no formula or prescription. The internal change can be organic as companies are always adapting to rapidly-changing business dynamics.  An organization’s size, overall objectives and decision-making culture usually play significant roles in creating a more socially-driven company. For the most part, it truly depends on the organization’s culture and ways of working.  Additionally, a company’s level of commitment and “boldness” will help shape how the cause branding or social responsibility program is communicated internally and externally.

Specifically, on a corporate level, there may be an individual or group of individuals who can champion a range of social initiatives as “change agents.” Most often senior executives cultivate change through leadership and behavior to create a broader cross-organizational pivot.

Mid-level managers and other employees can also enact this kind of shift – by identifying and planning small steps to create change.  From my experience, I was one of a few managers who recognized the power of brands for social good and teamed with colleagues to share best practices.

Some companies such as L’Oréal, Eileen Fisher and REI foster a corporate culture where employees at every level are “social change agents.” This type of work environment appeals to employees across generations, especially Millennials, who value “purpose” and meaning in their work.

What is driving this worldwide shift in businesses developing a purpose-driven brand? Millennials? Consumers? Social Media?

Over the past years, we’ve seen a convergence of corporate transparency, vocal consumers and technology-induced industry disruption. Not surprisingly, social media has helped raised awareness of both local and global social issues – connecting us as empathetic humans to other people around the world.  Also, social media platforms have enabled consumers to be highly expressive regarding their wants and dislikes in a public forum. This creates an instant two-way dialogue with brands.  As a result of stakeholder demand, the doors of companies have been blown wide open and companies must now be vigilantly accountable and transparent.  The recent proliferation of purpose-driven brands can also be attributed to the ongoing need for brands to differentiate themselves in increasingly competitive categories, especially those being overtaken by technology and innovation.

Of course, there is now the increasing wave of CEOs across industries that are taking a stand on “hot button” issues that affect employees and business. In turn, the CEO’s position and visibility can transfer to the reputation of the company and its brand. The degree to which the CEO, or another executive, is vocal and takes a stand has become a new benchmark in corporate social responsibility.

How do you justify dedicating budget and resources to cause marketing at an organization that has historically been very bottom-line driven?

At some companies, especially those with a multi-brand portfolio, the competition for resources is fierce.  I would say you need to show the value a cause marketing program brings to the brand from a business perspective. Value can be viewed from a quantitative or qualitative approach with metrics such as response rate or positive association, respectively.  Ask yourself and your team: What are the key objectives? What could a cause marketing initiative realistically achieve?  It’s prudent to understand what time horizon is acceptable for the particular organization.  Is this an organization that focuses on the long-term in regard to brand awareness and brand equity or the short-term like sales?

If your organization is new to cause marketing or is trying to strengthen their brand, how do you do so in an increasingly competitive space?

One way is to take a step back and uncover what the brand stands for or – as commonly called in marketing – the “brand essence.” This could include a process of looking at the brand’s history, integrated communications and narrative as well as consumer perceptions. What should emerge is a refined unique proposition, which is differentiated in an increasingly competitive space.

It is important for a brand to find a social issue that is strategically aligned and appeals to the intended target audience. You can look at what the competition is and is not doing as related to cause marketing. What I’ve seen work best is pursuing a disciplined approach – one that includes deep research, exploration and iteration – to help create and implement a stronger “brand purpose” that endures over time.

What qualities should companies be looking for when they are ready to identify a nonprofit partner?

Criteria for the right nonprofit partner will differ among companies, depending on the scope, investment, and duration of the social initiative.  However, here are additional specifics to keep in mind when looking to identify a nonprofit partner:

  • Positive image and reputation
  • Strong name awareness
  • Appealing target audience
  • Beneficial assets relevant to the initiative
  • Resources and talent to deliver against goals and strategies
  • Capability to set mutually-agreeable metrics

A nonprofit should be ready to partner with a company – small, medium or large – with sufficient resources to support the initiative. Ideally, nonprofits should have experience in working with a company to achieve the goals and measurements of an initiative.  It is important for the nonprofit to have a clear and realistic understanding of what and how it can contribute to the program and its prospective partner. Also, a nonprofit should be financially viable and organizationally stable. One essential factor is having the appropriate staff and talent to develop and implement the initiative in collaboration with the corporate partner. As with other types of relationships, this all contributes to how comfortable each party feels with the other – people to people.

 

Interested in aligning your organization with Operation Warm’s mission to provide warmth, confidence and hope to children in need?  Learn more about our corporate partnership opportunities.

 

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Hope FreedmanHope Freedman is a passionate Purpose promoter, who is dedicated to harnessing the power of insights-driven brand social missions to address societal needs. She leads brands through the discovery and activation of social initiatives that positively impact business, consumers and communities.  As a strategist in Edelman’s global Business + Social Purpose practice, she focused on developing differentiated brand social mission platforms for clients including PepsiCo, Unilever and others.  Hope is a cause branding leader with extensive background in consumer packaged goods marketing, advertising and communications – both on the client and agency side.  As adjunct faculty, she shares her expertise with students through curriculum development, teaching and guest lectures.  Hope has published numerous articles and presented at local conferences about social good and purpose-driven companies.

 

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