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The Future of CSR is Corporate Activism

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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by Dr. Ximena Hartsock and Jeb Ory

Most corporations donate to nonprofits, organize volunteer days, and evolve their practices in the name of corporate social responsibility (CSR). We should applaud such actions while recognizing that conventional CSR is now expected rather than celebrated. Today, companies renowned for CSR practice a bold new style of corporate activism.

Why did this change come about?

Until recently, geography constrained our choice of brands. In one city or town, there were a limited number of businesses that a person could reach.

The Internet blew up geography. Consumers could purchase goods online from vendors without the constraints of location. Moreover, consumers could investigate brands (i.e., Google them) and choose based on their social track records.

This freedom of location and a new awareness of brands changed buying patterns. A recent Cone Communications study found that 87 percent of consumers would purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about. Conversely, 76 percent of consumers said they would not buy from a company upon learning that it acted contrary to their personal beliefs. A similar study from Edelman found that “62% [of respondents] will not buy if a brand fails to meet its obligations to consumers, the community, and society at large.”

The notion that a for-profit business is accountable solely to shareholders is dead. Businesses that want to be profitable must meet ethical standards set by their employees and customers first.

How do brands take on this responsibility and perform activism in a genuine way? As the co-founders of a company that provides grassroots activism software, we work behind the scenes of these campaigns. Being agnostic towards activism technology, we’d like to share the common principles behind the best campaigns.


  1. Respond in the moment

Brands that embrace activism start with issues they are known to support, and they rev up action when it matters most. For example, Patagonia (one of our clients) has a long track record of supporting environmental causes. Their employees and customers support protection of the public lands.

In April 2017, when President Donald Trump asked the Department of the Interior to review and potentially revoke National Monument designations, Patagonia organically launched an activism campaign designed to flood decision-makers with pushback. They generated some 200,000 public comments on Regulations.gov, 70,000 tweets to politicians, and 5,800 phone calls to lawmakers. Patagonia’s reputation as an environmental steward and good timing made the campaign effective.


  1. Create a ladder of engagement

Meet customers and employees where they are. Notice that in the campaign results from Patagonia, a small proportion of participants was willing to make phone calls. Many more people were willing to tweet, and most chose to submit public comments to Regulations.gov, the website where federal agenciessolicit feedback on proposed regulations.

When you provide multiple options, your constituents are more likely to act. Raising a voice in social causes will be a new experience for most of your customers. Welcome them toadvocate from their comfort zone.


  1. Treat activism and commerce like church and state

If you have a physical store, create educational displays and dedicated tablet kiosks where visitors can message a lawmaker. If you operate in multiple channels or strictly online, create an entirely separate landing page for your activism efforts, built around the ladder of engagement we described above.

The kiosks and landing pages distinguish between activism and business. Without a clear divide, visitors may think that you’re exploiting social issues for profit. Both your intention and implementation must create a strict, church-and-state divide between cause and commerce. If someone shares an email address for your environmental campaign, do not add it to a marketing email list. Likewise, don’t throw product deals and purchase links into activism emails.

The voice of a democratic society

Corporate activism is not traditional CSR, nor is it cause marketing that sells goods by partnering with a nonprofit cause. Activism is how brands tell the world where they stand – and help employees and customers do the same. Activism builds community outside the scope of a seller-buyer relationship.

Will activism benefit the business? It might, and as long as profit is not the goal, it’s ok. Some companies find that 30 percent of the people participating in their activism campaigns have never bought anything from them. The ROI is not the eventual sale or passage of a bill in Congress; it’s the fact that someone acted and wouldn’t have without your brand’s support. That fact can have a halo effect for your business.

Corporate activism recognizes that how we spend money is an ethical statement. The brands we choose signal our identity and values. Don’t be afraid to show yourcorporate soul.

Dr. Ximena Hartsock and Jeb Ory are co-founders of Phone2Action.

Photo: Patagonia

3p Contributor

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