Although some companies still see corporate responsibility as fluff, increasing evidence that responsible brands perform better financially than their less-responsible peers means the skeptics are becoming fewer and farther between.
I recently completed an inter-office tour with my CR-expert colleagues to foster dialogue about this topic. The goals were to assess how our clients approach corporate responsibility and to explore how to enhance their efforts in ways that engage employees, satisfy customers, and build brand equity.
Over the course of various meetings, we heard questions, concerns and anecdotes that brought to light several dos and don’ts of corporate responsibility. Following are a few key takeaways:
Corporate responsibility dos
• Do make sure your corporate responsibility strategy is based on sound research and tied to business objectives. My client Bissell Homecare got this one right early on. Years ago, the company identified pet owners as a key customer group due to the inevitable messes pets bring into homes.
Bissell’s commitment to supporting pet owners and advocating for adoption was affirmed when its research revealed that 38 percent of Americans would add a pet to their home if “cleaning up after them” was easier. This statistic (and those showing millions of pets enter shelters in the U.S. each year) reinforces the company’s contributions to animal rescue groups and efforts to teach Americans that pet cleanup can be simple with the right tools.
• Do clearly articulate your program’s vision and mission, and make sure your approach is highly focused and differentiates you from your peers/competitors. Google gets kudos in this arena for its commitment to supporting members of the LGBT community in countries that criminalize homosexuality. The company clearly articulated its vision and mission in this statement about the launch of its “Legalize Love” campaign last month:
At Google, we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. In all of our 60 offices around the world, we are committed to cultivating a work environment where Googlers can be themselves and thrive. We also want our employees to have the same inclusive experience outside of the office, as they do at work, and for LGBT communities to be safe and to be accepted wherever they are.
Sure it’s Google, and it can do whatever it wants, but it still deserves a nod for tackling an issue that conservative companies would not. This will truly set its CR program apart and minimize the chance that another big brand will try to play copycat.
• Do seek support of leadership and identify company leaders as spokespeople and “owners” for your corporate responsibility programs. Our client Charles Schwab & Co. offers a great example of the key role company leadership can play in steering CR programs. It promotes financial education and well-being though the Charles Schwab Foundation, and its efforts are bolstered by the fact that Charles Schwab and his daughter Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz have both sat on the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. Schwab-Pomerantz also serves as president of the Foundation, speaks and writes extensively about personal finance issues, and offers advice for American consumers in her syndicated weekly column, Ask Carrie.
• Do walk the walk before you talk the talk. Make sure your corporate culture supports your corporate responsibility efforts, and involve employees in programs as appropriate. By now, you’ve all seen Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” video, which touts the company’s commitment to sustainable farming. At 6.6 million YouTube views, it’s safe to call it a smash hit, but the primary reason it’s been so successful is that it’s backed up with action. Chipotle began moving away from factory farm suppliers 10 or so years ago, and now says it uses “organic and local produce when practical … dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones … and meat from animals raised without use of antibiotics or hormones.”
According to Sustainable Brands, Chipotle also engages employees in its sustainability programs whenever possible. For example, before partnering with a regional group of agricultural, horticultural, and recycling operations to start a food scrap program in Cleveland, the company included its employees in a Q&A about the program and their role in supporting it.
• Do include quantifiable objectives and accountability measures in your corporate responsibility plan. This is important, because you can’t prove the value or legitimacy of your investment in CR without continually monitoring progress against goals. For large public companies, a sophisticated reporting system like Johnson & Johnson’s GRI Index might work, but for smaller companies, a simpler method for measuring improvement would be appropriate.
• Do complement corporate responsibility with cause marketing or sponsorships as appropriate. Here, I’ll go back to the Bissell example for a minute. To build on its longstanding advocacy for pet adoption, Bissell has been a 10-year sponsor of the online pet adoption resource Petfinder.com, and it just launched a program whereby a portion of all proceeds from pet products sold on bissell.com will go to help save pets. These programs would be worthwhile on their own, but they add value when paired with the company’s ongoing grants to local and regional animal shelters.
Corporate Responsibility Don’ts
• Don’t approach corporate responsibility as a media relations strategy. Although programs involving large grants or major community outreach may garner positive media coverage, publicity should not be the driving factor behind your CR commitment. If it is, you may end up sorely disappointed in the results.
• Don’t inflate your efforts for dramatic effect. Would you exaggerate the value of your company’s assets? Certainly not. So why would you embellish your charitable contributions or environmental practices? As the folks at Enron learned the hard way, you’ll eventually be held accountable for fabrication, so better keep the inflation in check from the get-go.
• Don’t let the lines blur between management’s “pet projects” and the company’s programs. This is a tricky one because, as noted above, you do want management to support corporate responsibility, but not to the point that they hijack your program’s strategy or resources for their own benefit. If you notice this happening, implement a process for vetting pro bono or charity projects to ensure they comply with the company’s CR strategy.
• Don’t assume your investment in corporate responsibility will come back to you in year one. Effective CR programs take time, resources, discipline and oversight, so it’s important to be patient and “stay the course.” Sure, Dow Chemical reduced its energy intensity by 40 percent for a cost savings of $24 billion, but it took them 22 years to accomplish that feat. Your investment will probably pay off, but it won’t happen overnight.
So, now I’ll turn it over to the readers. What corporate responsibility dos and don’ts would you add to this list?