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How brand-aligned CSR and sustainability efforts can help the bottom line

Freya Williams

done right, social purpose and CSR can drive – not detract from – business value

Freya Williams, Futerra North America


When I first started working at the intersection of CSR, sustainability, and marketing over a decade ago, I had many variations of the following phone call.

Client X: “We’d like to build a new signature citizenship program.”

My agency: “Great. What are your business objectives for the program?”

Client X (faintly horrified): “This isn’t about business. It’s about delivering social good.”

The subtext was clear: Keep the CSR and the selling separate.

It was someone else’s job to sell the products that generated the revenue. That other person was equally convinced his or her job had nothing to do with social responsibility. In fact, they viewed CSR programs as cost centers, not revenue drivers.

Fortunately, times have changed. Most brand and business owners now see that purpose and profit are aligned, not competing agendas. In fact, done right, social purpose and CSR can drive – not detract from – business value.

Of course, the key words are “done right.” And it’s not easy. Many brands have tried and failed to parlay good deeds into good business. You can’t just sprinkle a bit of cause fairy dust over your product, sit back, and wait for the sales lift to follow.

Thankfully, there are tools and strategies that work. Here are three principles to help you get it right.

Find your sweet spot

How often do you see a sustainability or CSR effort that feels disconnected from the business or brand? Think: a fast-food chain trying to tie bullying to a burger. A brand-aligned CSR idea must exist at the intersection of what the world needs, what the business needs, and what your consumer needs. We call this the “sweet spot” and it’s a powerful tool for unlocking ideas that bring business and impact objectives into alignment, while feeling true to your brand and relevant to your customer or consumer.

Take Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which launched in 2004, but is still a shining example today. The business needed to expand beyond soap to beauty. The consumer was a real woman who needed to feel better about herself. The world needed a more inclusive vision of beauty. This campaign found the sweet spot that has driven a decade of business growth, empowered consumers, and catalyzed a body-positivity revolution across the beauty industry globally. Not bad for a bar of soap.

Logic and magic

It can be tempting to go straight to creative, but to ensure credibility, you must first do the due diligence to build your platform on a solid foundation. Take two brands’ divergent approaches to supporting gender equality. One, an automaker, paid millions for a beautiful Super Bowl spot championing equal pay – only to be outed as having precisely zero women on its executive team. #fail.

Compare that to REI. Before it launched its Force of Nature campaign last year, it partnered with brands to design and stock gear designed by women for women, hosted 1,000 events to get women outside, ensured images of women outdoors dominated its social feeds, and committed over $1 million to community organizations supporting female participation in the outdoors. REI had the action to back up the advertising – in Futerra parlance, the logic and the magic – and the result was a win-win of business and social impact.

Think gold, not green

So much early cause and green marketing did a great job of appealing to a super committed niche – but this pioneer group is less than 20% of the U.S. population and not the mainstream audience that makes up the consumer base for most mass brands.

The group you need to target are what we call Gold Prospectors – mainstream consumers who want to do the right thing, but are motivated first by success, social status, looking and feeling good, and following trends. Sound like your consumer? That’s because it probably is. So make sure that when you approach cause you ensure you are working to drive mainstream appeal.

Is the issue easy to understand? Are there easy ways for people to get involved? Are you using your most on-trend influencers to seed the campaign? Does your social media campaign allow people to look cool while participating?

When we worked with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on Wild for Life, a campaign to end wildlife trafficking, they were able to work with celebrities such as supermodel Gisele Bündchen and soccer superstar Neymar to encourage consumers to find out who their endangered species spirit animal is and share on social media.

The campaign reached more than a billion people in three months – the most successful in UNEP’s history. So remember: people don’t park human nature at the supermarket door just because it’s CSR. Make it desirable and it will become normal.

The great CSR work that builds brands and business is out there, but we need more of it. We need great campaigns that change hearts and minds, cultures, and lives. And we need marketers and communicators who are bold enough to not default to hackneyed tropes – sad kids, tree frogs, and green leaves – and use their strategic and creative talent to go outside the box. So I call on all creatives to work on the most important brief of all time: building a better world. Let’s do this.

Freya Williams is CEO of Futerra North America.


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