By Grady Lee
It wasn’t long ago that corporate leadership dismissed the concept of “doing good” as a distraction to business as usual. To do it well could be costly and, worse yet, consumers wouldn’t notice or care. So, the North Star was brand awareness.
Today, nearly 11,000 companies have filed reports with the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Disclosure Database, demonstrating that they not only care about the doing good, but also care enough to be held accountable.
Over this period of change, a lot has been written about the shift in consumer behavior that has incentivized this rush toward “doing good.” Unfortunately, less conversation has existed around how to get it right, and how to successfully move from brand awareness to brand authenticity.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with a former executive of Unilever, a shining example of a company whose CEO has infused social impact and corporate social responsibility successfully into the fabric of its business.
The executive relayed that Unilever had always maintained a CSR platform and set of principles, but they didn't really catch fire until their brand teams got involved. For instance, one of the product teams ran a taste test for fish sticks. One consumer group was told that the fish were sourced from specific fish farming families (which was true), and another group was told that the fish came from industrial fish farms. As you might expect, the product with the origin story from the family farmer tasted better than the one from the industrial farm. It was the exact same product! But now, the authenticity of how the food was sourced had an impact on customer perception of the product’s quality.
Boom. Authenticity was now a differentiator for Unilever products.
As companies seek ways to connect with the world around them, they are finding that their message needs to stem from the essence of the company — a true, authentic place. The reason this is so powerful is because, as Cone Communications has noted, “consumers believe it’s okay if a company is not perfect as long as it’s honest about its efforts.”
If your brand promise connects with your actions, you’ll enjoy consumer loyalty. Thus, authenticity has become the currency in the world of brands. But brand marketers need to look at the CSR side of the business to know what that means.
From our experience of producing brand promises through social impact, we have found it is important to get the big things right: Alignment, Connection, and Commitment
Alignment is always the first step. CSR can be critical or it can be fluff. If your CSR initiatives are non-critical, they don't get the funding or attention they need, and are quickly reduced to a press release. However, if these initiatives are working in tandem with issues that are core to the business and to the governance of the company, they will not be forgotten or under-invested.
For instance, we worked with Coca-Cola and their distributor in South Africa on a youth engagement program. We produced a concert where the only way to attend was to earn a ticket by volunteering. More than 4,500 high school students gave four hours each, refurbishing local daycare facilities in order to attend an exclusive concert with Ciara and Busta Rhymes. However, when we stepped in, Coca-Cola and its distributor had different objectives that needed to be aligned.
Coca-Cola's objective was to “Open Happiness.” The company wanted to celebrate and empower in and around Johannesburg. Its message was about joy, fun, and empowerment — and very brand driven. Coca-Cola needed to be seen as a supporter and friend of those communities. As executives explained it, this kind of effort “provided a social license for them to operate in these areas.” The distributor, ABI, was more concerned with the impact of the work in the townships around Johannesburg. They viewed the volunteer effort as critical in those areas because their trucks that drove through them daily.
The alignment was the most important part. If the brand message didn't connect or the work didn't ring true to the community, the project would not effectively "open happiness."
Connection between the brand message and the company means that the message comes from the inside out. If you want to present yourself as a company that cares about the community (as you should), then the people inside the company need to be invited walk that walk too.
When Orange in the UK wanted to exemplify their new tagline, “Together we can do more,” we worked with them on a campaign to mobilize tens of thousands of their customers to volunteer and help local non-profits throughout England. We also created thousands of opportunities for the marketing department, retail workers, and call center operators to do the same. The point was to show that together, we can do more. We then expanded in other Orange markets in the EU and Middle East with a similar effort. When evaluating the success of the initiative, the CMO was surprised by the impact the campaign had on his people. The success of the marketing initiative stemmed from the mobilization of the company itself.
Finally, commitment pays off when it comes to authentic brand efforts. Brand marketing departments have a reputation of loving and leaving in the social impact space. Connecting with community and driving social impact takes time and continued effort. If you get in and get out too quickly, your credibility will suffer.
Boost Mobile, a telecommunications company, chose to anchor itself to a message around helping customers ‘boost’ themselves to the next level. After we launched a program with the company in New York City, they doubled down and took the empowerment message to more than 30 cities over the next four years. The work we did in New York was impactful, but if it didn’t align with the brand it wouldn’t have mattered.
In the end, brand authenticity is real currency, and its value stems from aligning messaging to actions, leading with campaigns internally, and committing to change. It’s not easy, but it ultimately leads to more rewarding work and successful results.
Grady Lee is the CEO and Co-Founder of Give2Get, a production company that mobilizes volunteers through cultural experiences. He is also the Founder and chair of IMPACT 2030, a global collaboration between the United Nations and the business sector to help achieve the United Nation's Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals by means of corporate volunteering.