Companies need to recognise the difference between their social responsibility and their social cause if they want to build a successful social campaign

In spite of my passionate belief that companies can and should care, I must confess to holding Dawkins-like scepticism at the CSR campaigns of most corporations. I suppose I should be happy about the little wins—commitments to greater recycling or fairer supplier relations, better working conditions or fewer carbon emissions. But the idea that they have to build a social media ‘campaign’ to say ‘look how good we are’ seems to undermine the entire credibility of the campaign.

What it says to me is not so much ‘we care about our planet’ or ‘we care about people’ but rather ‘we care about not losing customers’. Which makes me wonder, if they have to tell people about their ‘goodness’ do they really care in the first place? Is it all just a bit of corporate greenwashing?

Yet there are brands that care and I believe them. I have no trouble believing that Richard Branson is truly passionate about entrepreneurialism and his investment in helping young promising entrepreneurs to get a leg up is driven by more than just a desire to find the ’next best opportunity.’

A couple of years ago I visited the AGM for Triodos Bank, an organisation established to bring ethics back to banking. The meeting was like an evangelistic rally short of an organ and a swaying choir. Over the course of a day they excitedly showcased dozens of businesses that they had invested in that were making a huge impact on towns and communities around the world.

One such project was an agricultural company in India setup to buy farmland from struggling bankrupt farmers and then rehire them to farm the same land in a joint partnership along with new farm equipment and training in modern farming methods. They also built new roads to help them get to markets and schools for their children.

A brand like Triodos is not hard to believe in. They aren’t just a social venture, they are a true profit-making enterprise with a benevolent heart. But Triodos is not entirely different from Barclays Bank when it launched more than two centuries ago. As John Freame, the founder of the bank put it, the current generation had a duty to instil sound values in the next: "To implant in (young) minds a sense of piety and virtue, and to train them up in the best things. This would prove more advantageous to children than getting a great deal of riches for them.”

Indeed, Barclays built a great deal of its business off of helping struggling under-capitalised small businesses. For many they were an absolute god-send. They succeeded through doing good.

The pitfalls of social campaigns

The problem with many social campaigns today is that their cause is disunified from their brand’s identity. McDonalds was a brand built on creating a great dining experience for families with children. Their Ronald McDonald foundation was much more believable as a social campaign than their current ‘farm to table’ approach. They have never been a brand built on healthy holistic living, so why should their social cause be built on that? I don’t visit a local ice cream shop expecting to be sold on the health benefits of ice cream. I appreciate it as a rare indulgence.

This is not to suggest that they shouldn’t source locally and be fair with their farmers. Merely that they shouldn’t build a social campaign about it. Companies need to recognise the difference between their social responsibility and their social cause.

Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is something you do merely because it is right. It promotes a healthier planet, it creates communities and it builds a better workplace. You don’t need to gain brownie points from your customers for this. It’s just part of being human. Trying to promote your brand off of this actually makes your brand appear more, not less, dishonest.

On the other hand, Apple is doing CSR right. Recently Greenpeace announced that they were the ‘greenest’ tech company in the world. All of this came with little fanfare on Apple’s part. They never produced ad campaigns to remind us about ‘how much they care’. They didn’t involve us in a social cause to ’save the planet’. They just did it. In fact Tim Cook had to make a very bold stand with a bunch of angry investors over it.

Social Cause

By contrast, the social cause is something the brand should shout about because it is how it is working to make the world a better place. Whether that is Apple’s passion to help creatives create or Branson’s passion for supporting undiscovered talent, the social cause is the very reason the brand exists.

Disney is an example of a company that lost and then regained its passion for children. Disney went corporate and became too focused on the bottom line, making films merely to meet market demands. But with John Lasseter’s return it was able to recapture its child-like wonder and started making films for the sheer love of childhood entertainment.

For Disney to support children’s charities and causes is believable. It’s consistent with who they are and what they care about. Yes they should also care about the environment and the future of the planet, but it’s not only pointless to build a social campaign about it, it’s detrimental to the brand’s credibility.

As I mentioned in my last post, brands need to look at their identity more holistically and I suggested that they should borrow from the principles of religion for a more unified and engaging approach to this. Here are my 5 steps to building believable campaigns:

1. Start with the brand myth

The foundation of every religion is its story. The myth awakens us to a great conflict that must be fought and invites us to participate. In the business world, the conflict may not be a physical enemy but rather a false idea or a market force and how it is negatively affecting the lives of your customers.

Every great social campaign is a chapter in your own story and, therefore, needs to fit with your narrative. If you are a brand that cares about children then your CSR campaigns should relate to that. It’s this consistency that gives your brand authenticity and helps people believe that you actually do care.

2. Build on your ideals

The myth engages the heart, and so the ideals engage the head. When people buy into a religion they aren’t just buying into a story, they are buying into a belief about how the world can and ought to be. Thus, religions ‘preach’ about values and ideals that they believe can shape a better world. The more inspiring and captivating their ideals, the more people are willing to give up to follow their religion.

Your ideals (or values) should explain the things you care most about in the world, and make sense in light of your story. Do you care about artists or children or entrepreneurs? If so, what ideas do you want them to care about as well? What beliefs do you hold about how the world should and could be a better place? What is it that gets your workforce out of bed every morning?

As a company, you should be sharing your ideals in more places than just your product literature. Speak about them, write about them, advertise them, publicise them. Preach them everywhere at all times. There should be no surprise about what excites you. If you have nothing to say about how the world can be better, people will rightly assume that you don’t care about making it better.

3. Formulate the cause

Because religions share inspiring ideals, formulating a social cause is easy. The cause focuses the story and ideals into a specific mission that says ‘here’s how we are fighting to see the world become a better place’. Often the mission is to change a cultural perspective and establish new behaviours.

Based on the social cause, you can then craft a multitude of social campaigns to support it. Think of Nike and their cause to help athletes push their limits. It’s very easy for them to take this cause and build campaigns around a multitude of social concerns: helping athletes in the developing world, using sport as a means of bridging conflict, encouraging women to engage with sport, inspiring the elderly to stay active, and so forth. All of this links back to the common cause.

4. Engage with rituals

Religions use rituals as a means of allowing people to participate in the ideals. Rituals work by creating habits that ingrain values into our psyche so that they become a part of who we are and shape our perspective, our decision making and our actions. They can shape how your employees behave, but also how your customers connect. If you think of every visit to your store or website as a visit to your brand’s cathedral, how does the experience impact on their psyche? What ideals are being shared with them through the experience?

Brands that believe in their ideals will craft and shape every aspect of the customer experience to reflect their beliefs. Consider Apple’s passion for elegant simplicity, it doesn’t just affect their product design, it affects their packaging, their stores, their website and their sales process.

Many companies focus too much on trying to make life ‘easy’ for their clients or staff. Don’t make it easy, make it meaningful. Let your purchasing experience or your social campaigns allow them to connect deeply to your values and celebrate them with you through their action. We wouldn’t know about ALS if it didn’t involve the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. People needed to act in order to feel connected enough to the campaign to give.

5. Protect your beliefs

Religions use codes and covenants to protect their ideals. This process of commitment creates a binding effect that connects people together by agreeing to standards of behaviour. This commitment has a binding effect that can foster deep trust and loyalty amongst followers.

Many companies have invested millions in social campaigns only to lose all of their hard-won social capital in a moment of bad press. Therefore, your brand codes and promises are where you mitigate this risk and demonstrate the seriousness of your commitment to those you work with. Thus it is here that you can talk about your corporate responsibility and ideas like ‘fair trade’ or ‘living wage’ or ‘environmental concern’ without losing credibility.

As mentioned above, however, don’t broadcast how hard you work to meet your commitments, let others do it for you.

Brands that matter

When your brand shares inspiring ideals every purchase becomes a ritual for your customers, allowing them to celebrate your ideals with you. It allows them to feel that they are ‘part of the club’ and through their purchase, helping to make the world better. This may sound airy-fairy but supermarkets, car manufacturers, airlines, and PC makers have created armies of fiercely loyal customers who believed that ‘their brand’ was taking on the market on their behalf.

And today the world is begging for companies that they can again believe in, companies that restore their belief in banking and finance, energy, transport, politics, policing, and more. They need brands that have authentic religions and build believable causes. They need brands that are willing to stand up and believe in something. They need brands that matter.

Be a brand that matters.

Josh Jost is an advisor to corporate, startup and 3rd sector organisations on ethos and identity. Read more at or follow him on Twitter @joshuajost.

Branding  ethical branding  social campaigns 

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