by: Jennifer Rice

Whether you sit in marketing, CSR, supply chain, HR or the executive suite, you’re likely doing your part in ensuring your brand “does no evil” and perhaps even is doing some good. You can probably point to a laundry list of company initiatives from employee volunteer programs, fair labor practices, cause marketing, cradle to cradle manufacturing, and so on.

However, in most companies these efforts are not coordinated to tell a coherent brand story, and fragmented responsibilities means that no one is seeking the profitable white space opportunity that lies at the intersection of your brand and social impact.

The key to building the socially good brand is a mindshift from silos to systems… from independence to interdependence. There should be a single strategy anchored in customer insight that defines not only what the organization does, but also how it behaves and interacts with all stakeholders. When each department is left to create its own vision of social impact, the result is inefficient and contradictory at best, and self-sabotaging at worst.

Each group has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to setting this type of strategy. A CSR department focused on compliance, fair labor and philanthropy doesn’t usually have the skill sets of customer insights and profitable innovation. A marketing or public affairs department can unilaterally decide on a cause-focused direction only at its own peril; customers are increasingly jaded and intolerant of companies who don’t fully walk their talk. Brand managers are often focused on their own products’ brand equity and have little to no influence over corporate alignment with a cause. It’s time to pull it all together, which is admittedly a tall task for most.

Creating the socially good brand is likely the single biggest opportunity for internal and external collaboration for companies today. Employees and customers want to be part of something bigger. And more importantly, it alleviates the risk of PR fiascos, builds consumer trust through consistent words and actions, and has a positive bottom-line impact even in the downturn.

So how do you shift from fragmented programs to a unified strategy to build a socially good brand? Here’s our top 10 list. If you have more suggestions, comments are very welcome.

  1. Ensure executive leadership in recognizing the company’s role in the larger societal ecosystem, committing to conscious capitalism, and being willing to make tough decisions that align actions with rhetoric.
  2. Gain buy-in across departments that “singing from the same songbook” will lead to significantly greater impact than one-off programs.
  3. Be willing to cut pet projects in favor of a laser focus on initiatives that drive brand and business goals.
  4. Develop a deeper understanding of what each group can bring to the party. For example, marketing should be bringing stakeholder insights and competitive analysis to work with CSR pros on identifying the most fruitful way to build brand equity through social impact. Marketing is also great at simplifying messages to be readily understood by stakeholders.
  5. Leverage innovative thinkers and departments to come up with your company’s version of GreenWorks or Ecomagination – profitable ways to demonstrate your company’s commitment. This is how we shift perceptions of CSR beyond “BDF” (babies, dolphins, and forests) and create sustainable, meaningful change.
  6. Before committing to a cause-related direction, be sure to understand whether your brand has any credibility among your stakeholders. If the answer is no, figure out exactly what actions you need to take in order to gain credibility, and create an evolution strategy to get there. Or switch to a cause that is more believable for your organization.
  7. Understand the customer touchpoints that drive purchase and loyalty, and find ways to ensure that your customers fully experience your social commitment. While you’re at it, look for ways that your customer experience might be sending mixed signals and contradicting your public rhetoric.
  8. Don’t demand from suppliers what you’re not willing to do yourself. If you want suppliers to adhere to codes of conduct, create one for your own company that ensures realistic expectations and outlines ways to collaborate rather than dictate. Nike is setting a good example here.
  9. Establish metrics across the business, not only for internal initiatives like carbon footprint but also for customer perceptions and attitudes. How are you closing the gaps between customer expectations and their beliefs about your brand? (And do you even know what those gaps are?)
  10. Collaborate with customers. The more you engage them in honest and transparent dialogue, the more trust can be built. You can even solicit their feedback on what metrics they’d like to see instead of unilaterally deciding what to measure.

What are the roadblocks within your company to building a socially good brand? Or, what has really worked within your company to make this happen?

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