In today’s marketplace, companies must go beyond just creating a reliable product or experience. Customers are also examining your brand’s commitment to social responsibility.
As of 2019, 46% of customers pay close attention to a brand’s social responsibility efforts when making a purchase, according to research from communications agency Markstein. An additional 70% want to know how the brands they shop from are addressing social and environmental issues.
“A large part of that is the big systemic issues that we’re facing, like DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion], climate change, circularity [of the economy],” says Paula Ivey, senior director of ESG strategy at consulting firm PwC. “These are just some of the big puzzle pieces that are coming to the forefront of society.”
Savvy companies are looking for ways to show they care. That includes putting dollars towards social causes. Socially responsible investment reached over $35 trillion in 2020, and is projected to reach $50 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance.
However, don’t invest thoughtlessly. “Committing a definite percentage of company budget to CSR [corporate social responsibility] before building out a robust program can limit the success and impact,” says Paul Marshall, principal at firm Tightline Consulting. “First, a company needs to build a business strategy designed to benefit its community of consumers, employees, stakeholders and environment.”
Social efforts should be guided by a clear social responsibility program that spells out the company’s commitment.
Your vision “should be a guide for the company’s ethos — a strategy for aligning the brand with its purpose and values. It provides a strategic direction that helps all stakeholders to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why,’” says Tabitha Upshaw, senior director of brand, reputation and impact at engineering firm NI.
Before You Get Started
When developing and communicating social responsibility efforts, you’ll want to be aware of two key terms:
- Corporate social responsibility (CSR), which refers to the idea that companies should serve both their communities and society, in addition to creating value for shareholders. For example, CSR may involve environmental stewardship programs, equity in employee pay, philanthropy, increasing DEI through new hiring initiatives and volunteering in local communities.
- Environmental, social and governance (ESG), which involves measuring a company’s social and environmental impact. ESG reporting varies by company. Sustainability reporting is not required by law.
Your company may already have a department leading CSR or an internal role that oversees ESG. See what social responsibility language your company already uses when crafting your social responsibility initiatives.
Social responsibility programs are typically led by a corporate impact or brand team, which often sits under the chief marketing officer. The corporate impact team may also sit under a chief operating officer or a chief legal officer. The organizational structure will vary by company. Regardless of how your organization is structured, the team writing the plan will need to work with other stakeholders to ensure the mission is effective.
When developing your social responsibility program, think of three audiences. “Investors who are stock focused, consumers who are bound to price and convenience and employees, who want the company to flourish and be financially successful in the long-haul,” says Judy Samuelson, executive director of the business and society program at the Aspen Institute.
To guide you, we gathered five tips to help craft your brand’s social responsibility program.
1. Know Your Company’s Why
“You should start with a good understanding of the company’s purpose, its values as well as how your internal and external stakeholders perceive those things,” says Upshaw. “You need to be true to your brand. If you cannot answer the why, you don’t have a good place to start on the how.”
Knowing your company’s “why” means understanding the strategic focus areas you want to address through your program. Companies will often pick 3-5 focus areas to address. If you need help getting started, you can review the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and think about where your company can make the biggest impact.
For example, Fortune 500 company Costco lists “decent work and economic growth” as one of their sustainable development goals, which involves “remaining a profitable business while doing the right thing.”
The company lived this value in March of 2020, when it raised pay for hourly employees in the U.S. and Puerto Rico an additional $2 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remember, your dedication to corporate responsibility can also impact employee retention and engagement. Be sure to assess the values of your workforce before you get started.
2. Set Goals That Address Your Strategic Focus Areas
When crafting your social responsibility program, think big and be open-minded when brainstorming your vision. However, make your goals specific to hold your company accountable.
One company with a specific goal: Ski Butler, which rents winter sport equipment. The company’s climate vision is to “create and implement 2030 Net Zero plans for the mountain towns that Ski Butlers operates in.” To reach this specific goal, the company is working with Marshall at Tightline Consulting to build a data driven employee commuting incentive program that includes public transit, carpooling and other alternative modes of transportation. This pilot program is designed to help increase employee retention in the ski towns they operate in, as well as reducing the company’s scope 3 carbon footprint.
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3. Determine Your Metrics
Create your own set of metrics so you can hold your company accountable. Knowing your company’s progress can help you keep track of your goals. Metrics will vary depending on your strategic focus areas.
Your metrics could be related to the percentage of diverse employees your organization hires, the number of hours spent volunteering or your volume of carbon emissions. Some companies may choose to address these metrics as data points in their CSR reports. When done accurately, metrics can show consumers that you are committed to social responsibility and help increase brand loyalty.
For example, Intel’s metrics relate to their focus on diversity and supply chain. The company has committed to $2 billion in annual spending with “diverse-owned” suppliers by 2030.
Meanwhile, Comcast’s metrics relate to sustainability. The company seeks to be carbon neutral by 2035, offsetting approximately 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The company released a carbon footprint data report which notes an 11.5% decrease in global emissions from 2019 to 2020.
4. Seek Guidance and Input Across Your Organization
“We are at the juncture where ESG is being integrated into every corporate function. It needs to be driven top-down and bottom-up,” says Ivey.
Your social responsibility efforts shouldn’t live just within marketing or under the chief sustainability officer. When crafting and enacting your social responsibility program, form a cross-functional group and collect ideas from employees who are on the frontlines. That includes, but is not limited to, environmental departments, HR, public affairs, finance and legal teams.
You may also want to consider elevating a social responsibility or sustainability position into your C-suite. In fact, 95 Fortune 500 companies have a chief sustainability officer. You can also seek out a board member who has CSR or ESG experience.
“Make it a priority to incorporate ESG expertise on the board of [your] company. It’s very important to have representation from someone with ESG experience,” says Ivey. “Representation should be horizontal and vertical.”
5. Adapt and Revisit Your Program Annually
Review your social responsibility plan and revisit it regularly. The issues that matter most to your workforce and customers will change over time, and your plan should reflect those developments.
“Customers and shareholders are now expecting companies to take responsibility for the world we share, whether it’s locally, regionally or globally,” says Upshaw. “An important thing to remember, though, is that the mission statement does not need to be set in stone. While it should be relatively evergreen, circumstances change.”
Transforms Your Program into Action
Despite the mindset shift towards social responsibility, there’s still progress to be made. While 95% of S&P 500 companies shared their ESG information publicly as of June 2021, only 10% of audit committees noted having oversight responsibility for ESG reporting.
Crafting a program is only the beginning of your social responsibility journey. Your team will need to build the initiatives that put strategy into action, as well as gather data to measure your progress.
And remember, the time and dollars invested in social responsibility can have long-term business benefits.
“Investing in waste-reduction, circularity, DEI and the sustainability of the supply chain will serve the company in the long-run,” says Ivey. “They are all smart business decisions that will make the company more financially sustainable over time.”