The Value of a Corporate Social Responsibility Program for Consumer Brands

05.09.18 / David Lemley

If you had to decide between buying a bag of coffee from a brand that supports sustainable farming in Nicaragua or buying from a conglomerate giant, which would you choose? All else being equal, there’s almost no contest.

Statistically (and anecdotally) speaking, we know that consumers connect more deeply with and are more likely to purchase from brands that align with a social cause. In a crowded marketplace, your company’s commitment to a cause can be one of the only differentiators between your brand and every other brand selling products or services like yours.

If your brand is looking to pursue a bottom line that reaches beyond profitability (in other words, a “triple bottom line”), a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program is a great place to start. The real challenge comes with determining what your company will stand for — and behind — and making sure that investment is meaningful to your customers and employees alike.

How to Choose Your Cause

There’s a reason your brand exists. You know that. There’s a practical side of that to be sure, but it goes beyond what you do to earn money. All good brands are aspirational.

If you want to figure out where and how to invest in your community or in a broader cause, start with the story your brand is telling. Choose a cause that weaves into the fabric of who you are as a company and where you came from, and you can’t go wrong.

We recently worked with a brand called Essentia Water that decided after a particularly successful year to invest in a corporate giving program. After weighing different options and evaluating their company’s mission and values, the brand ultimately chose to fund after-school programs for at-risk youth.

If you’re a consumer who’s not familiar with the Essentia brand, you may find the connection between a bottled water brand and at-risk youth a bit of a stretch. But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that this brand investing in this cause makes perfect sense. Just read the company’s origin story, which revolves around the idea that “we all start somewhere…[but] there’s no limit to where we can go.”

By funding these after-school programs, Essentia Water is, in essence, allowing the kids and teenagers that participate in these programs to become “tomorrow’s overachievers.” After all, the brand’s tagline is fittingly: “Overachieving H2O.”

Profitability and Your Triple Bottom Line

It’s a myth that the ability of your brand to give back stems from your company’s age, size, or scale. What truly allows your brand to give back is its profitability. If you can afford your values (in other words, if you can pay for more than just keeping the lights on), you’re in the right place to consider implementing a triple bottom line initiative.

On its face, the idea that your brand needs to reach a certain level of profitability to give back feels selfish, almost callous. But picture sitting on an airplane and listening to a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety speech. What’s the one thing you can count on hearing (even if you’re admittedly largely ignoring the speech to read your Kindle)?

“Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

The same concept has to apply to your brand. Allow yourself to thrive first. Then help others do the same.

Giving Back at the Grassroots Level

Even if your company isn’t in the financial position to implement a triple bottom line initiative or massive give back program, it doesn’t mean you can’t start somewhere.

Take Atlantic Natural Foods, the oldest vegetarian brand in the world you’ve never heard of. Just a few years ago, they had the admirable yet far-fetched goal to fix the global food chain.

As a smaller company though, their ability to contribute resources to this cause was limited. But they wisely recognized that global issues are fixed at the grassroots level so that’s exactly where they started.

Atlantic Natural Foods is based in a small, rural town in North Carolina where the minimum wage is low and many of its residents live below the poverty line. This is a population that subsists on diets that, without a doubt, contribute to the food chain crisis. In light of the realities of their community, the company’s first initiative was to change their internal wage structure. Next, they showed their employees how to cook and eat the very food they were helping to produce.

The cultural shift that happened within the company as a result of these seemingly small initiatives was huge and almost immediate.

With no direct prompting from the company, Atlantic Natural Foods’ employees took the initiative to gather company trucks and food supplies and take them to communities that had been devastated by a recent hurricane in North Carolina. What’s more, they were able to transfer the cooking skills they had only recently been taught themselves to the residents in these communities — a gift that truly keeps on giving.

By empowering their employees, Atlantic indirectly created a culture of giving back that spilled into their community and beyond. That says something about their brand.

Outward Expression of Internal Values

The sort of wonderful thing about choosing a triple bottom line for your brand is that it’s not a science. There’s no right or wrong way to create a triple bottom line for your company, no formula to follow.

The key is finding a cause that outwardly expresses your mission and values as a brand and as a company, whatever that may look like.

The right cause will resonate with your customers regardless of age, education level, and socioeconomic status because it speaks to who they are and who they want to be. And that’s a powerful message.

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