The Rise of Corporate Social Responsibility in Corporate America

Thoughts on CSR from industry leaders at our most recent Thoughts For Leaders Forum event

Corporate Social Responsibility is one of the latest buzzwords in corporate America. The advent and popularization of social platforms have allowed consumers to become more socially and environmentally aware. How companies and their brands respond to this new reality is increasingly important to consumers and is rapidly becoming a differentiator in the market. We live in an era of customers who are willing to vote with their dollar and hold companies accountable for their broader actions in the world — and companies are responding. In this environment, CSR has become a corporate necessity, not just a nice to have.

At our most recent Thoughts For Leaders forum event, we assembled 21 marketing leaders from across the CPG spectrum at the Nespresso flagship store in Manhattan to share their thoughts on CSR. It was a lively debate and we had some common themes emerge from our discussion. These were: 1. The importance of authenticity in any CSR campaign. 2. How a CSR campaign is vital in today’s competitive market both as a way to attract customers but also as a way to differentiate a firm to help them win the war on talent. 3. That CSR ultimately has to make good business sense and be a core foundational part of the company’s mission for it to be a success and survive the ups and downs of a company’s fortunes.

The Importance of Authenticity in CSR

CSR, at its base, includes initiatives that center around 4 separate areas: environmental programs (e.g. efforts to reduce the company’s carbon footprint), philanthropic efforts (e.g. a fundraiser or donation for charity), ethical labor practices (e.g. refusal to exploit cheap or free labor), and volunteering programs (e.g. providing employees with paid time to volunteer in the community).  All of the above is laudable and worthwhile but what kept coming up during our discussion was the role that authenticity plays in the most successful CSR campaigns.

Steve Sommers, CMO of Rue21 (formally CMO of Vineyard Vines), says that “The most powerful thing is to have a CSR campaign that is intimately tied to the brand.  It makes it feel more authentic and authenticity is key.  The public can always tell when something is not real.”  This sentiment of how important authenticity is both to the consumer and to employees was echoed by Andres Siefkin, EVP of Marketing at MasterCard.  He says that “Authenticity is critical, both to the outside world and, more importantly, with your own employees.  No one wants to work somewhere that is disingenuous about what the company believes is the right thing to do.”

Why CSR is Important

The importance of CSR cannot be understated.  It is a must-have for any modern, forward-looking firm simply because customers and employees both demand it. More consumers than ever are requiring that companies change the way they do business, become more transparent, and take an active role in addressing social, cultural, and environmental issues. CSR has taken its place in today’s corporate world, and businesses that ignore it do so at their own peril.

During our CMO event, our attendees kept circling back to this point.  In their eyes, a CSR campaign was vital as a signaler to the outside world that differentiates you from competitors.  Just as important, CSR was also a way to signal to the market for talent that your firm has a social conscious and this becomes very important in an economy reaching full employment. As Melissa Goldie, former CMO of Calvin Klein says, “People are motivated by a myriad of things (especially millennials) and social responsibility is one of the main ways to stand out. Giving employees meaning in their jobs, makes the team want to be more prolific in their work for the brand. It allows companies to more easily team build and create a strong corporate spirit.”

CSR has to Make Good Business Sense

For many companies, managing corporate social responsibility well is no longer seen as an extra cost or burden on hard-pressed management. CSR is increasingly viewed as contributing to the long-term prosperity of a firm. Being a good neighbor and showing that you care on the one hand and being a successful business on the other, are becoming more and more flip sides of the same coin.  Ignacio Puig de la Bellacasa, VP Marketing at Reckitt Benckiser says, “CSR needs to appeal to a higher calling than just the financial. There is an altruistic thread that runs through CSR that can also have a lot of positive business effects.  It helps you to recruit people, it helps you to retain people, it helps you to attract capital, it gives you another business reason why being a good company makes good business sense.”

CSR campaigns clearly have to appeal to the better angels of our nature, but, that being said, any CSR campaign has to also make good business sense.  As Gunther Trieb, CEO of Delsey says, “ CSR has to have as a fundamental goal the creation of a competitive advantage for the company.  This competitive advantage need not only be measured purely in financial returns, but it must be something that adds value to the company. Ultimately, CSR has to be genuine and make good business sense or it will be short-lived.”

Thanks to all who participated in a very successful Q1 Thoughts For Leaders event.  As always, the conversation was enlightening and thought-provoking.  If you’re behind a consumer brand and would like to discuss how The Pi Group can assist you with hiring better, please reach out directly to our team. We have expertise in building brands, adding and advising on Sales & Marketing, Finance & Accounting, Supply Chain, and Human Resources talent, across a wide range of companies within the Consumer sector.

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From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.

Arthur Ashe