One of the hottest topics in marketing in recent years has been the effectiveness of brand purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR) on sales. Although there is strong evidence that consumers do prefer to spend money on goods and services produced by companies that demonstrate a commitment to worthy causes, it is also becoming increasingly obvious that many companies are pursuing this somewhat cynically and attaching themselves to causes for the sake of it.

In a time when people’s BS detectors are more finely-tuned than ever, this has the potential to backfire on these organisations and potentially spoil the party for those who are doing things the right way.

Who Is Getting It Right?

According to Radley Yeldar’s “Fit for Purpose Booklet”, the top 5 are Unilever (first place for the 2nd year running), Lloyds Banking Group, Philips, British Land and Novo Nordisk.

What sets them apart according to the report?

Collaborating – whether with start-ups or directly ‘creating a movement’ with customers. What this suggests is that consumers are not content with having causes half-heartedly forced upon them by a corporation and its marketing department, but like to believe that they are part of a combined effort engaged in tackling a particular social problem. Collaboration with organisations that already have a strong reputation in their ’cause’ gives the campaign much more authority.

Let’s take two-time “winners” Unilever as a case study. Radley Yeldar singles out their “Zero Food Waste in Britain” campaign (in collaboration with charity Hubbub and various industry partners) as a standout. Having a quick look at their website, you could be forgiven for thinking that the cause has outgrown the company.

The landing page is dominated by an image of two young girls presumably from a developing country going to a school, presumably only possible due to the support of benevolent corporations such as Unilever, “a proud supporter of the UN’s global goals”.

Only when we scroll down are we reminded of the fact that Unilever is a company with a share price, followed by career opportunities info and, only then, some vague background images of actual products produced by Unilever brands.

A visit to the company’s “Our Vision”page reinforces these messages, but also ties them back to good business sense – securing long-term growth through a commitment to sustainability and developing strong relationships in emerging markets believed to be significant for future growth.

Whether it is possible, necessary or even desirable for all corporations to follow in Unilever’s footsteps is debatable, yet it is clear that they certainly do set a standard in corporate social responsibility that is hard to beat. As Marketing Week states, the fact that so many high-profile companies have fallen out of the top 100 suggests that they are not placing the same importance on brand purpose.

How can it go wrong?

In one of two ways – either the campaign doesn’t hit the mark due to a lack of perceived genuineness or in some extreme examples it ventures into the realm of offensive. A good example of the latter was the gay marriage coffeegate scandal in Australia a few years back, with LGBT groups calling for a boycott of Gloria Jeans due to a donation to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) which campaigns strongly against gay marriage.

Conversely, ACL itself called for sponsors (including Gloria Jeans’ competitor the Coffee Club) of morning program Sunrise to withdraw support of the program due to statements of support for gay marriage.

In a less extreme sense, a campaign can simply put consumers off due to a perceived lack of authenticity or leave them unmoved; a failure considering the amount of money, time and consultation that goes into corporate involvement in a cause.

Lost cause or not?

The main conclusion to be drawn from all this is that for a cause to be successful, it must be genuine and effective.  Attaching a brand to a cause merely for the sake of it without genuine consultation and collaboration with key stakeholders within the cause IS a lost cause and not being involved at all is actually a wiser choice.

We are definitely seeing something of a crisis in corporate social responsibility, but it is only a matter of time before we see another uptick.

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Posted by James D. Burbank

James D. Burbank has worked for years in traditional as well as online marketing. He has worked in Central Asia, Europe and Australasia for years, helping US-based companies exhibit at trade shows in those parts of the world, among other things. He’s been on the ground for years and for the last few years, he has also been working in online marketing. James is currently on well-deserved hiatus and blogs about his experiences, the stuff he’s learned and more. Business and marketing all the way. He is also a father of two and a huge Utah Jazz fan.