Creating Synergy Between CSR & Marketing

Jason Mills
Co-Founder - Brand Strategist

I love my job because almost daily I get to speak with people trying to make a positive impact in the world along with their company. I came from a marketing and advertising background and getting the opportunity to speak with CSR and marketing professionals this frequently is rare. For many years, these two departments have had trouble connecting on the same level, creating synergy in their communication plan often is not a priority.

The positioning of the brand and CSR strategies tends to be more difficult for companies to grasp. Achieving this alignment requires companies to bring their CSR and marketing teams together to define an approach. There are many different ways to integrate CSR efforts into marketing communication. Here are four ways that can help connect these efforts to brand communication.  First, the Integrated approach covers five main areas in CSR efforts: environment, community, employee welfare, financial performance and corporate governance all being a big part of the brand. Second, the Selective approach, this is more specific and more focused on partnerships and brand support. Next, the Invisible approach is more internal and plays a more guiding role for brand standard and never becomes part of the external communications. Lastly, the Company Culture approach is all about employee engagement with the CSR efforts both internally and externally.

‍Figure 1: The four approaches to aligning CSR and brand.

Integrated approach

In this approach, the brand and CSR department work together. This is appropriate when responsible business practices are the key drivers of the brand. The core strength of this approach is that companies with a thoughtful business model can communicate a single story across all the value points. It is more relevant for those companies in which responsibility is at the core; this means consistent performance across environmental, community, employee welfare, financial performance, and corporate governance commitments.

This is what Whole Foods Market is all about. The Whole Foods’ brand promise is all about sustainability, as expressed in their slogan ‘Whole foods. Whole people. Whole planet.’ Business,

Whole Foods gets its fish from sustainable sources, its meat and vegetables are organic, as well as all its shelves populated with good products. Moreover, Whole Foods’ employees are encouraged to participate in charitable activities during company time. they also pride themselves on constantly setting new standards for using alternative energy to power their stores. Whole Foods’ success is evident, with double-digit growth rates over the years.

Selective approach

In the selective approach, CSR manifests itself in very specific ways. This can, for example, be in the form of a sub-brands or strategic partnerships. The selective approach is useful either when market research shows a  business with a responsible practices preference, but the company doesn't have proof points across the CSR components to support a fully integrated approach, or when only a particular identifiable

An advantage of the selective approach is that it can provide an efficient way of standing out in a crowded market while protecting the parent brand from customer/stakeholder criticism, as CSR efforts are more linked to the sub-brand or partnership than the company. Sainsbury, for example, has created a partnership using the Fair Trade brand as a differentiator to draw customers into its stores and distracts from the fact that they were the first supermarket in the UK to carry this brand. Although Sainsbury is committed to CSR, its sourcing and supplier strategies have been criticized for not being impactful enough.

The Fair Trade partnership worked well for Sainsbury by illustrating the company’s CSR practices without affecting its reputation. As a result, the Fair Trade business grew and had become an essential part of giving Sainsbury a new image as the supermarket serving the middle-classes with high-quality products.

Invisible approach

CSR in the invisible approach plays an important strategic role in guiding the company, but plays an understated role in external communications. This helps businesses to use CSR as an asset to instill trust in the brand. This option differs from the others in that messages regarding corporate responsibility initiatives never actually become part of the company’s external communications.

Fashion brand Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) is an example of a brand which is serious about CSR in all regards but does not flaunt it in their communications. This is despite the fact that H&M is dependent on maintaining customers’ trust amidst the rumors of child labor, unfair labor standards and the use of dangerous materials that are looming in the fashion industry.

H&M’s choice to keep their CSR efforts out of its external communications is clearly strategic. The reason is that their efforts do not constitute a point that makes shoppers choose H&M over other brands. Customers prefer H&M because the company offers fashion and quality at a reasonable price. Thus as the price is an essential part of its value proposition, H&M does not want to be viewed as an excessive philanthropist with profits to share with charities and not consumers.

H&M takes great care in selecting role models for its signature advertisements and allows individual retail outlets autonomy to include cause-related marketing initiatives as part of their branding mix. While these actions clearly contribute to building H&M’s image as a caring business, these are widely seen as short-term promotions – and drivers of sales.

Company culture approach

As the new millennial population enters the workforce, they come in with different values than the generation before them. In 2008 88% new hires were looking for employers with CSR values that matched their own, and 86% would consider leaving an employer whose values no longer met their expectations. Millennials are also turned off by some entire sectors. Millennials at work Reshaping the workplace.

Companies with large populations of employees can take advantage of the fact that employees become one of the brand's biggest advocates. When companies involve their employees in their CSR efforts, the opportunity to integrate the CSR activities into their communications becomes natural.

Amsterdam-based Booking.com does an excellent job in engaging their employees in their CSR efforts with their Booking Cares program.  They built a platform that puts the employees in charge of the company’s efforts. Whether it is cleaning a beach in one of the locations in the world that they serve or volunteering as a group to clean graffiti off the walls in a city, to donating money to support a cause, the employees are in charge of what they support.  The impact is valuable and the social sharing and employee involvement  shared on social media

As the preceding examples demonstrate, there is more than one way to create a successful connection between CSR and communication. The nature of the business – category, customers, employees, competitors – will dictate how much, and in what ways a company should promote its CSR activities.

Every organization is different and has their own DNA that is unique to them. The cost and the benefit to an organization determines the best CSR strategy track to go down. When companies do good by their brand it brings out the best within the corporate culture and builds trust among its consumers.   


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