Around this time of year, big Fortune 500 companies resuscitate their annual giving campaigns, tossing boatloads of cash at a variety of charities in an attempt to demonstrate their philanthropic side, garnering a substantial amount of PR in the process. Meanwhile, in most cases, these very same companies are those engaging in socially irresponsible business practices such as exploiting offshore labor, animal testing, and wasteful manufacturing processes. It is also often these companies who emit harmful chemical pollutants and represent sizable carbon footprints.
While many of their products represent blockbuster brands in the market who remain popular — and highly profitable — the 2008 Cone Cause Consumer Behavior Study indicates that more than two-thirds of Americans now actively consider a company’s business practices when making purchasing decisions, underscoring socially conscious values as a key driver in the success of emerging companies and brands. In addition, American workers have also indicated that they want to work for an employer who supports a social cause or issue.
Established brands like The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s and Timberland have effectively demonstrated how you can operate a profitable mission-based company. And newcomers to the scene such as sweetriot, Sarah Endline’s company built on establishing fair trade and supporting the economy of underdeveloped countries, and Virgance, Steve Newcomb’s for-profit endeavor that uses the power of online social networks to transform activism ideas into large-scale, citizen-powered global campaigns designed to improve the world, are gaining momentum in the market. In a short time, Virgance has already achieved significant success with their Carrotmob and Lend Me Some Sugar initiatives that spur revenue-generating activities for socially responsible companies.
The Cone study also revealed that ‘Cause Branding’ and corporate responsibility indicates an evolution in consumer thinking about the ways businesses interact with society, and that an overwhelming majority of Americans (85%) say they would switch to a more socially conscious company’s products or services, making this a competitive differentiator — and critical market advantage — as well.
But in order to build — and sustain — a values-based company in an increasingly conscious market, there are key factors that should be considered to maximize long-term success:
A Passion for Change - One of the main reasons why consumer support for large corporations is waning is because they see through thinly veiled attempts at merely appearing to be charitable vs. an underlying commitment to bettering the world, so it’s important that you are passionate about the causes through which you plan to promote change. That type of authenticity will carry through to your brand, making a meaningful connection with consumers, and also serve as a compelling differentiator against competitors. At the end of the day, the care you demonstrate for the world in which we live translates into care for your customers. People want to support companies that show outward — and genuine — concern for them, and their future.
A Human Touch - The advent of the Internet and social media, making two-way communications possible with end users — is another important element in reinforcing the underlying values your business represents. Consumers no longer want to support faceless entities whose decisions are made behind the inpenetrable walls of corporate board rooms. Transparency — and showing the face(s) behind your business — are vital components to ensuring the sucess of your company. Use two-way channels to interact with your customers and elicit feedback for your efforts. Give them an opportunity to comment on your iniatives and take an active role in championing your social and environmental issues and practices. Donating thousands of dollars to a random charity has merit, but by and large, consumers want to be part of that process, and advocate those causes that directly impact them vs. an arbitrary, off-the-shelf ‘assembly line’ charitable approach.
A Proud Workforce - According to the Cone report, American employees’ expectations of companies have increased dramatically. The old adage of a ‘happy employee is a productive employee’ has never rung more true. The study further revealed that employees familiar with their companies’ cause programs are a) proud of their companies’ values [and, hence, more motivated to work hard to advance their efforts], b) feel a deeper sense of loyalty to their companies and c) are inclined to become involved in the company’s causes personally. Before your message reaches the market, invest in your internal team, who, even ahead of consumers, are your greatest brand ambassadors in proliferating your values and message. They are also living, breathing manifestations of your brand that emphasize your real — and tangible — commitment to socially responsible business practices instead of just an outward claim.
An Eye on Innovation - As the expectations of consumers continue to rise, along with the upsurge of other conscious companies, keeping an eye on innovation will be critical — not only with identifying additional opportunities for change, but by creating possibilities, and fostering participation vehicles, for substantively affecting change on a large scale. The Cone study further delved into Americans’ belief that it is incumbent upon business and government to solve pressing social and environmental problems, but that they also acknowledge that to truly drive change, there needs to be widespread collaboration among sectors. Consumers are beginning to demand more radical change in return for their investment in your product or service, so developing a platform through which multiple parties can work together to exponentially increase positive — and signficant — outcomes is the future.
Some mainstream brands continue to lead the way in cause marketing and innovation, creating additional growth opportunities and promoting a healthy mindset for adoption of new values-driven companies entering the market.
A few examples include:
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. – “For 25 years, we have been on a deliberate journey to create and sustain a values-driven company that views profit as a means to achieve a higher purpose.”
Important issues to Green Mountain: Fair Trade, Disaster Relief
General Mills, Inc. – “At General Mills, we are guided by our values – they are the source of our strength, and the heart of who we are. Those values guide us to be involved in our communities and affect positive change.”
Important issues to General Mills: Community Action, General Mills Foundation, Youth Nutrition & Fitness
The Timberland Company - “Our mission is to equip people to make a difference in their world. We do this by creating outstanding products and by trying to make a difference in the communities where we live and work.”
Important issues to Timberland: Community Involvement, Environment, Global Labor Standards
And there are hundreds of other companies like these who have maintained an ongoing, measurable commitment to change — and achieved healthy profits in the process. But no matter what issues are important to your or your business, the greatest success comes by consistently putting your values first.
Sources: Cone Cause Evolution Survey, 2008; Cone Cause Consumer Behavior Study, 2008. http://www.coneinc.com ; Business Ethics Magazine: The 100 Best Corporate Citizens, 2007. http://www.business-ethics.com/node/75