by: Jennifer Rice

Ok, I’m a bit late to the game, but I just stumbled upon Liberty Mutual’s The Responsibility Project that was launched last year. The discovery led me to investigate whether its focus on responsibility was rhetoric or real.

“Through The Responsibility Project, Liberty Mutual is using entertaining content, including independently produced short films, online content and television programming, as catalysts for examining the decisions that confront people trying to “do the right thing.”"

This appears to be an excellent example of leveraging brand into social responsibility. The effort is part of their overarching brand campaign targeting a demo/psychographic of “responsible people.” From the standpoint of marketing communications, this is a very well strategized and executed campaign. It’s simple, easy to understand, consistent, and taps into a core customer mindset.

But what’s much more important is seeing how the brand lives up to its rhetoric. On the positive side, Liberty Mutual’s mission to “help people live safer, more secure lives” is manifested in substantial ways across the organization. Liberty Mutual Foundation supports communities through grants to education, health and human resources non-profits. The company also offers educational seminars and activities on safe driving, identity theft protection and other topics. Its commitment to environmental stewardship is demonstrated through EnergyStar status for two corporate buildings. And on the customer-facing side of sustainability, it recently introduced a collection of green property coverages called Green Select.

On the negative side, here’s what the Consumer Affairs  site has to say about the company:

Liberty Mutual is one of the nation’s biggest insurers. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your point of view. It’s been caught up in the insurance industry scandal unearthed by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s kickback probe. The company also faces charges in an Illinois investigation.

Visitors can also click through to (quite a few) customer complaints across all of its divisions.

My point here is not that Liberty Mutual is “good-washing.” I see consumers and media bashing CSR leaders like BP and Unilever in ways that I think is pretty unfair given how hard they’ve worked to lead their respective industries in responsible business practices.

But I do think we can learn a few lessons here.

  • the responsibility for creating a socially good brand can never solely reside in the marketing department. It must be pushed through the entire organization.
  • today’s information transparency means that any negative viewpoint is going to get airtime.
  • companies that proclaim their commitment to responsibility are likely to get hammered by consumers more than those who don’t.

The latter is one of the risks of committing to a socially responsible path. All eyes are going to be on you, because you’ve set the bar for yourself. Corporate hypocrisy seems to be as magnetic as a car wreck, with everyone slowing down to point and stare. There are plenty of rewards for leading your industry when it comes to social impact, but be sure you understand the dangers and go about it in the right way. That means living and breathing your promise throughout the customer experience, not just through special programs and initiatives.

Liberty Mutual has a campaign about ethics and doing the right thing. It cannot, for example, allow itself to be sued for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” without undermining consumer trust. If your company is embarking on a responsibility effort, you might want to conduct a risk audit to identify those areas that can put your entire brand in jeopardy and take steps to close those gaps.

Original Post: http://www.fruitfulstrategy.com/blog/2009/04/responsibility/

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