The Bank of Canada's declaration that the recession is over provides an opportunity to look at your business and brand strategies with fresh eyes. One important focus: corporate social responsibility.
In tough times, businesses make decisions that emphasize short-term survival, and neglect longer-term investments that feel like "nice to do's." Before the economy softened, companies were increasingly making corporate social responsibility an integral part of their business and marketing strategies. When money got tight, many companies cut back or shelved their plans entirely.
With positive news on the horizon, it's time to take the CSR strategy off the back burner and ensure you're well-positioned for growth.
Some companies will have more of an uphill battle against competitors that didn't back off of CSR. (Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola Enterprises are notable examples of companies that increased their commitment to CSR during the recession.) But they'll have to respond to consumers who increasingly want to deal with companies doing everything in their power to be socially and environmentally responsible.
So how can you reignite a CSR focus in ways that are meaningful and authentic? Here are some thoughts to kick-start the conversation:
Start with passion
A focused CSR strategy starts from a point of passion, whether it's because the board or senior leadership decides it's time to use the corporate platform to lead change or the corporate communications or marketing departments see an opportunity to address negative perceptions or create a competitive advantage.
Look for a natural extension of what you do. Your CSR strategy should be tied as directly as possible to your corporate or brand mission and ultimately help differentiate your company from competitors that are doing less to meet CSR goals.
Pick a focus
Corporate social responsibility strategies can be narrowly focused around specific goals (say, support of a charity) or be more broadly defined (for instance, sustainability or community economic development). The key is to pick something that you can own and that fits with your corporate values.
Often, larger companies, particularly when profits are good, have a hard time saying "No" to specific requests. By spreading their CSR budget around too many initiatives, they reduce their ability to play a true leadership role and effectively engage their stakeholders.
You need to make an honest assessment of what you can directly affect (your internal operations) and what you can influence (your stakeholders and partners).
And be clear about what is not within your control so that you're not wasting valuable resources trying to change things that you can't. Consumers don't expect you to change the world, but they'll reward you if you do what you can within your sphere of influence.
Look inside and outside
Companies with the smartest strategies ensure they are being fully inclusive, across their organization and into the wider world, with outside partners, stakeholders and the general public.
One smart move often overlooked is using employees to make a difference in their communities. As well, companies that are working hard to change behaviour inside their organization may forget the influence they can have outside with, for example, their buying power with suppliers.
Identify expectations, plans
Too often, the heavy lifting of getting CSR initiatives off the ground is shouldered by one department. While individual or departmental passion can do a lot to drive action, it's more effective to ensure that operational expectations and action plans are created at all levels of the company. Without strong communication and engagement, execution falls short and innovative opportunities are missed.
it's not just marketing
A CSR commitment needs to come from a genuine place. If you're acting socially responsible purely to increase sales, consumers will call you on it. That's not to say, however, that CSR initiatives can't be used to complement marketing strategies.
Set measures of success
A focus on results is needed to drive and maintain momentum. Without measurement, it's harder to get buy-in, determine which actions have the most impact and keep all stakeholders motivated to meet long-term CSR goals.
Developing a focused corporate social responsibility strategy requires an investment of time and resources. The results, though, can often be what sets you apart from competitors, now and in the future.
Andrea Southcott is president of ad agency TBWA\Vancouver.