By Kevin Xu
What if you woke up tomorrow morning and no one cared about your company’s products or services, but only your reputation? Would your business survive?
Many businesses know reputation affects their sales, but how much it influences consumers is what really astounds some executives: Sixty percent of consumers polled by the Reputation Institute buy, recommend, or invest in a company on the basis of perception, while 40 percent do it because of the product.
So how does a company eyeing global expansion build credibility with unfamiliar customers? The simple answer is to start a corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaign to bolster the brand. There are so many pieces to this puzzle, though, that the simple answer is never actually simple.
To plot your approach, look at how Eastern and Western cultures differ. Western-based companies tend to publicize their social responsibility campaigns, while Eastern companies keep those initiatives quiet. No matter where you’re expanding, knowing which values the culture prioritizes and how best to reach those consumers is a good way to make sure your business’s nonprofit efforts resonate.
Doing good the right way
In the U.S. and other Western cultures, CSR campaigns are easy to see. Disney promotes the conservation and protection of wildlife; Gap Inc. works with women garment workers from Cambodia and India to promote education and literacy; Microsoft’s NetHope facilitates apprenticeship programs in Kenya.
These programs, while not always promoted in mainstream advertising, are prominently placed on corporate websites and at certain events. They are incorporated into business strategies and used to gain favor with consumers. That’s not to say these initiatives are bad; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Samsung’s Mobile App Academy summer program uses corporate promotion and community engagement to help expose high school juniors and seniors to curricula, development camps, and competitions designed to spark interests in STEM-related jobs. The University of Chicago’s partnership with Tata Trusts allows policymakers, students, and professionals to come together and address key concerns about health, water, sanitation, energy, and the environment in India.
While Samsung and the University of Chicago are excellent examples of CSR campaigns, neither is really selling to markets outside its own borders. It’s when companies begin to expand their CSR campaigns internationally that issues really begin to arise.
The biggest hurdle companies must overcome when wooing a foreign customer base is what the customers don’t know. Simply put, foreign companies have zero credibility with local customers who have no idea whether these new products or services are all they claim to be.
CSR campaigns can confront and quell those doubts by educating consumers. Companies should be transparent about their protocols, mottos, and anything else related to their processes and cultures that potential customers should know. The more your audience knows, the more likely it’ll gravitate toward any initiative you roll out.
Be responsible outside your own borders
Companies must account for the social, political, and religious history of a region when determining strategic CSR campaigns for their new markets; that history effects current belief systems, familial structures, and community values — all of which determine the success or failure of a single campaign.
While the obstacles may seem overwhelming, business leaders can rely on these three strategies to ensure markets respond to an initiative:
1. Join a current global initiative. It’s much easier to join an initiative than to start from scratch. This type of strategy is twofold: It establishes a company’s name within the region and shows that it’s invested in the community. Joining an in-progress initiative allows companies to better understand the lives, beliefs, and values of their target consumers before jumping in the deep end.
2. Attend global forums. Global forums give companies glimpses into the different needs prevalent in different areas. It allows them to strategically look at what is already being done and find an area where they can shine.
My company’s partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative keeps our CSR efforts locked in with stateside and international trends. It gives us the chance to hone in on areas we want to effect, then use what we know to practically apply our CSR best practices to said region.
3. Follow the market’s direction. Companies can also look to the work already being done within a region to determine how best to get involved. Is the area invested in solar technology? Create a CSR campaign focused on green energy. Is it going through a period of social reform? Start a campaign that talks to your specific consumers about their everyday lives.
CSR campaigns are never as simple as they seem. Creating a strong one involves a lot of strategic thinking, research, and planning, especially if you’re trying to infiltrate international terrains. But with the right strategy in place at the right time, it can position a company for success and help it continue to thrive in unfamiliar foreign territories.
Your business’ reputation will always precede it — make sure it’s one you’re proud to own.
Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Kevin is co-founder of the Human Heritage Project.
Image credit: Guilhem Vellut, Flickr