How Brands Can React to The Changing Nature of Corporate Social Responsibility

Greed is good,” said Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street, one of cinema’s defining accounts of 1980s corporate culture. But in the years that have passed since, the world has changed significantly – and the way we look upon consumerism has changed with it. Boosted by the fast-paced nature of the internet, awareness of a wide and diverse range of social concerns has grown across the past few years, shifting how our purchasing decisions reflect on us, and therefore how we look at and perceive brands. Now people are not just searching for good quality and value from the brands they buy from, but good qualities and values.

A brief glance at some of the most noteworthy campaigns of the past few years illuminates this point. Sport England’s hugely influential This Girl Can has gained tremendous traction by foregrounding women in sport with a sense of authenticity that belies the picture-perfect photoshopping women are typically presented with in advertising. On the opposite end of the scale, Protein World’s now-infamous Are You Beach Body Ready campaign sparked outrage by defining ‘beach body ready’ as a body that’s thin and athletic. Such sexism has not faded, as this recent example from estate agents Marsh and Persons shows.

The Millennial Influence

The drive for increased corporate social responsibility is by no means a new phenomenon. Brands and businesses have always looked to help charitable foundations, but it’s now become a core selling point thanks to the way millennials are seeing social activism. More than most generations before them, millennials make key purchase decisions with social concerns in mind. In 2015, for example, research by Cone Communications found that 70% of millennials are willing to pay more for a product if they know it’s being produced by a socially responsible company. Meanwhile, a further 70% would voice their opinions to a company about its social responsibility efforts, for either the positive or the negative.

The second statistic is the critical one. Young people are not only unafraid to voice their opinion, but they have a multitude of tools with which to do so. Social media has broken down the barriers between brand and consumer, allowing us to communicate quickly and frequently if a brand acts in a way we disapprove of. The Marsh and Parsons example mentioned previously captures well how quickly issues such as this can snowball. The ad, which was one of a number of similar creatives, needed just one tweet to get the ball rolling, gain Twitter traction, pick up mainstream media coverage, force a brand statement and then inspire the ad’s removal. All this happened within the space of about a day.

It’s not just brands who feel the pinch either. The demand for greater responsibility in advertising has been replicated in the media and Hollywood as well, with March seeing criticisms of the Daily Mail for its ‘Legs-It’ front page, the Cannes Film Festival for digitally altering the body of actress Claudia Cardinale in the poster for the 2017 festival, and Hollywood for casting white actress Scarlett Johansson in the new adaptation of Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell. Representation, the objectification of women, and acknowledgement of privileges that certain genders, sexualities and races have are all critical things, and with Twitter accounts such as Everyday Sexism doing more to hold the powerful to account, it’s vital for the powerful to take notice.

How Should Brands React?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but what’s clear is that authenticity is critical. The trend over the last few years has been for brands to engage in less traditional forms of marketing. The hard-sell no longer works, and now it’s about engaging in new and softer forms of communication that have been more about telling a story than selling a product. Virgin Holidays produced the most striking recent example with its #SeizeTheHoliday campaign, which included a live TV ad comprised of footage from customers’ holidays as they happened. Audi, and others have done similar.

The message of these campaigns isn’t just that innovative storytelling works, but also that authenticity does. A 2014 survey by The McCarthy Group found that millennials rank the trustworthiness of advertising at just 2.2 out of 5, and that an overwhelming 84% say they simply don’t like advertising. By engaging in clear, demonstrable social concerns, brands can build that sense of authenticity and ultimately a sense of trust. But it’s not quite as simple as that single sentence might suggest. Authenticity has to be, well, authentic; it needs to grow organically from the brand and can’t simply be magicked up for the sake of conveying authenticity.

This has been achieved with great success by L’Oreal Paris’ new campaign, which finds it collaborating with The Prince’s Trust. Adapting its well-known tagline ‘You’re Worth It’ to reflect the greater focus on diversity and body positivity, the brand has launched an ad fronted by Helen Mirren alongside the likes of Katie Piper, Marcus Butler and Louisa Johnson that bears the phrase ‘We’re All Worth It’. The great success here has been to engage clearly in social concerns, but do so through an evolution of the brand identity that doesn’t abandon or even significantly change the core message, just slightly adapts it to be more inclusive.

On the opposite end of the scale, McDonald’s attempted to convey a more familial, intimate personality and show gratitude to farmers who provide the potatoes for its fries in a 2012 campaign called #MeetTheFarmers. The campaign seemed inauthentic and quickly attracted a barrage of criticism from Twitter users, who used the hashtag, and the #McDStories tag that was also being used as part of a wider campaign to gather stories from customers about their experiences in McDonald’s restaurants, to criticise the campaign. Both hashtags were eventually pulled.

The Unpredictability of Social Awareness

Whatever the quality of a campaign, any act of social activism is dependent upon how the society it’s commenting on reacts. As society itself is an entirely fluid thing comprised of a multitude of unpredictable opinions that are getting more and more fractured, it’s very difficult for brands to understand exactly how their campaigns will be received. This makes any act of brand social responsibility and awareness inherently risky.

What’s more, recent examples have proven that even laudable campaigns can go badly wrong and bad campaigns can be rewarded. After the Beach Body campaign, Protein World apparently boosted sales by £1 million thanks to the additional publicity it received. On the other end of the scale, TV ratings for NFL games declined sharply following Black Lives Matter protests by stars such as Colin Kaepernick and Brandon Marshall in 2016. A Yahoo and YouGov poll showed that 40% of the 1,136 respondents criticised Kaepernick and 17% cited him as the reason they stopped watching.

Ultimately, the only controllable factor in a social awareness campaign is what that campaign revolves around, and that’s where brands must be thoughtful and considerate. Brands have certain areas of influence that they can comfortably engage in and they often relate directly to the brand’s industry. A car company, for example, could engage with causes focused on limiting greenhouse gasses or warning against the dangers of drink driving, but would likely be seen as overreaching and inauthentic if it worked in an area such as LGBTQIA rights. Corporate social responsibility isn’t a hobby or a spit-polish applied to a brand image. Just as people engage with social concerns that they truly care about because they actually care about them so too must brands. Find the ones that matter to your brand, not the ones that will gain traction, and engage as any normal human would. Charity is about humanity – so act like a human.

What do you think of corporate social responsibility? Should brands engage in social issues, or are they better off keeping away? Let us know your thoughts.

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