Corporate responsibility and the future of brand giving

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is nothing new, we once called it philanthropy, but it has never deserved as much attention as it does today. Brands are in a unique position to leverage resources in a way that can benefit everything from society to the environment, on a macro or micro scale. Add to this the ability for companies to improve their industry - whether that’s attracting stronger talent or reducing waste - and the reasons to get involved become more persuasive still.

Rick Guttridge understands this only too well. His Manchester-based agency, Smoking Gun PR, has assisted many of its clients with CSR initiatives, and has long since advocated a model for campaign measurement that rejects inaccurate Advertising Value Equivalents in exchange for evidence based analysis.

Add to this ongoing work alongside universities, including the provision of long-term internships and training to help nurture tomorrow’s sector stars, and it should be obvious why I chose him for a chat about what brands can do to give something back in 2017.

This year we have seen growing discontent among the public towards the globalised economy. Do you think companies need to take this into consideration? 

Rick: Businesses always need to be aware of the mood and sentiment of consumers, keeping an eye on the swinging mood barometer of this most important stakeholder group. Pressure groups can and do force large global brands to change how they operate - think of the likes of Nestle, Unilver and Proctor & Gamble, for instance, who've been forced to re-consider using ingredients like palm oil on the back of consumer movements.

The most successful global businesses are often those that tailor themselves to local markets and that continues to be the case. What we are witnessing is the reality of naked emotion coming to the fore: it’s not about being rational, logical, factual, it’s how you engage with the emotional pulse of your consumers.

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Is CSR still widely seen as a bonus when it comes to a brand’s reputation, rather than something we should expect or demand?

There is increasing Corporate Social Responsibility work being undertaken by firms of all sizes. This is no longer a tick box exercise for a section of an annual Company Report for the largest few. I can only see this increasing as growing numbers of millennials look to join companies with social good in their core business, not as an add-on. Businesses such as Toms shoes and Leesa mattresses, which both donate products (one for ten and one for one respectively) to communities and people that need support are two examples. As businesses battle to attract and retain the brightest talents, this could become a key focus area in the future. 

For our own part, we built an element of social enterprise into our business’ fabric at conception. Annually we donate a minimum of one per cent profit to charity, mainly local to our firm but also supporting the needs and experiences of colleagues. We’re also committed to growing our colleagues’ skills outside of the workplace to help them develop as individuals. Our annual personal bursary allows staff to try new experiences or achieve greater competence at something that matters to them, maybe speaking new languages, taking driving lessons or learning how to cook.

Watch this space as social enterprises are likely to prosper and the grey area between not-for-profits and corporate CSR blurs evermore. You can either be a commodity or brand: and outstanding brands have a strong brand purpose that goes beyond traditional 'sticky plaster CSR'. It shows you stand for something, care for people, and want to make the world better.

Read: The highs and lows of business in the Middle East in 2016

What steps would you advise brands to take to try and put something back into society - locally or internationally - in 2017?

 Firstly, brands shouldn't just take a sticking-plaster approach to CSR. Involving staff in what direction the business’ CSR goes is vital to increase engagement, which in turn has other benefits for productivity, reduced sick days and staff churn. Understanding what your business does, and, crucially, why, helps to not only differentiate you from your competitors but also clarifies a suitable platform for CSR. The ‘what’, how’ and ‘why’ is part of Simon Sinek’s well-trusted Golden Circles model for leading change.

Research from Deloitte suggests there are four archetypes of business that harness social impact for business growth. According to the report’s authors, each archetype carries with it a different set of risks and opportunities. While Shareholder Maximizers need to focus on regulatory and reputational risks, Impact Integrators need to clarify business and social impact success metrics.

So basically, don’t rush in! Understand your firm’s ‘why’ and then assess what you want from CSR and where your business is in the journey. This way, your CSR will be much more aligned with the company’s core goals. Brands have got to work to build social capital and identify how they can act with authenticity, and integrate making a positive difference. This is reciprocal in some ways, too - doing good also improves your own performance so you create a virtuous circle.

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How important is it that companies also give back to their industry?

Protecting the future of the industry that you serve, and that serves you, is vital. It’s not only the preserve of the largest players in each field, either, although there is an inherent responsibility for market leaders to set tone. Even just looking in our own field of public relations and social media marketing, there are two hot industry topics which aren't set to go away soon. The talent shortage and how to evaluate the real impact of PR. Neither issue has a quick fix and there’s certainly no silver bullet so it’s vital that we all play a part in fixing things.

When it comes to internships, these are a vital way of helping candidates get that all-important experience on their CV and check they actually want a career in this field. For the employer it’s a chance to find potential next hires and, with long-term thinking, build relationships with the potential marketing director clients of the future. At Smoking Gun PR, all intern candidates take a written test to gauge skills and commitment. In terms of our work on measurement, it’s a dry subject that makes many role their eyes as they prefer to focus on the creative side of the sector. But with increasing competition and threats to our budgets from other players, like managing consultants moving into the field of ‘reputation’ and media buying agencies offering digital PR solutions, everyone has to up their game.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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