One Thing That Really Matters For 2014: Closing The CSR Gap

It’s that time of year again—when Top 10 Trend lists suddenly appear like lights on a tree (so far I’ve counted dozens, including Tech Trends, Green Marketing Social Media Trends, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Trends, Supermarket Trends, even the heart-stopping 2014 Top-Ten Call Center Trends). 

Here’s the challenge with this trend blizzard: What to do with all this information? It can be hard to get past a disquieting, uh-oh-maybe-I-should-do-something-about-this-response and convert these ideas into action (responding to a similar trend glut last year, I wrote about what I called “Anti-Trends” — a few, fundamental, evergreen issues that demand the continued focus of marketers and CSR practitioners alike).   

That’s why this year I’m leaving the trend thing to others altogether, and taking a different approach. As we turn the corner into 2014, I’ve opted to put quality over quantity, and identify One Thing That Really Matters for 2014: A single, defining idea with the potential to transform brands and organizations—positively if embraced, negatively if ignored—in the year ahead. 

So, without further ado, here’s my inaugural One Thing. I’m calling it “Closing the CSR Gap.” It’s about the huge gulf between consumer expectations of what companies should be doing, and consumer perceptions of what companies are actually doing. Our recent research shows an overwhelming majority—93%—of U.S. consumers expects companies to do more than just make money. People are looking for companies to make a real difference, whether through supporting social/environmental issues, donating money, time, or products, advocating for change, or transforming how they operate.

Yet, at the same time, consumer skepticism about companies is high. Only a small minority—16%—believes that companies, despite their efforts, commitments and public declarations of high-minded purpose, have actually made a positive impact. To make matters worse, they also believe that companies only share good news and avoid communicating challenges and failures. High expectations combined with low credibility? CSR Gap, indeed.

My take is that most practitioners are either unaware of the CSR Gap, or more likely, are in a state of euphoric, do-gooder denial (Trust me, I’ve been there). Doing the work of CSR—inspiring, impactful things like cause marketing, philanthropy, sustainable sourcing, zero waste, etc.—fundamentally feels good. And the CSR-focused teams I meet within companies are typically pretty fired up by the positive power of doing good. But many have blinders on to the tough reality of marketplace skepticism that confronts them, and the fact that a majority of people don’t think what companies do actually delivers much impact. Want to close the CSR Gap for your brand or company? Here are four things you should do:

1. Embrace skepticism: Start with the assumption that even if you’re doing amazing things, people will remain fundamentally skeptical, unless convinced otherwise. Start with due diligence—identifying your key stakeholders and researching their needs, attitudes and barriers to belief. This is about understanding the extent of the CSR Gap that exists for your brand or business, and building closing this into your CSR objectives and success criteria. Let skepticism be your guide as you develop, execute and measure your initiatives.

2. Focus for impact:  When it comes to CSR, many companies take on way too much complexity (e.g., issues, partners, initiatives), which gets in the way of delivering impact. Critical to success is figuring out your unique CSR value proposition, identifying which specific issues areas/beneficiaries are important to you, and focusing on how you can address them in a disciplined way to drive business and social impact. Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds program (Disclaimer: client) is centered on a single issue that’s relevant to both their Moms-and-families target and their technology-driven business: Declining US proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This five-year, $100 million cash/in-kind initiative has reached over 900,000 young people to date and was recently inducted into the prestigious PR News Hall of Fame. The power of focus. 

3.  Buddy up: To help ensure meaningful impact, don’t go it alone. Partner with leadership nonprofits that won’t just passively accept money/resources, but instead will challenge you to deliver real outcomes, dimensionalize the impact of your investments via robust measurement and reporting, and co-innovate with you to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. P&G’s Pampers brand had been working on maternal/newborn tetanus for decades, but it wasn’t until they partnered with UNICEF that this effort began to really drive the Pampers business and significantly impact this important global health issue. The results? Since 2006, Pampers has grown handsomely while funding +300 million vaccines and helping eliminate maternal/newborn tetanus in eight countries to date. 

4. Be Vocal, Be Real: Many companies struggle with telling their CSR story effectively. Don’t forget the increasingly critical linkage today between transparency and authenticity. Consumers are way more likely to trust companies that tell it like it is, versus sugarcoat the truth. Our research shows that consumers don’t expect perfection, just integrity—with a full 85% saying it’s okay if companies aren’t perfect, as long as they’re honest. People also understand that business success and CSR are fundamentally linked, with over 80% expecting companies to benefit from their CSR efforts. There’s no better way to close the CSR gap for your company than proudly telling your story—not only about the tangible, positive impact you’re having on people and communities, but also the obstacles and challenges you’re overcoming. Don’t have a compelling CSR story to tell? Better get one—you’re missing a major brand-building opportunity. 

So there you have it. As we start afresh in 2014, with CSR increasingly becoming a baseline corporate expectation, and consumer credibility regarding companies languishing, the CSR Gap is real. It’s creating fruitful opportunities for companies that see this—and a significant risk of irrelevance and reputational damage for companies that don’t. Drawing on my work creating CSR strategies for leading companies and nonprofits, and looking out across the rapidly evolving landscape of the consumer marketplace, it’s hard not to feel like a CSR bubble of sorts is forming—a giant dome of expectations and good will that most companies are barely managing to prop up. This is a look-in-the-mirror moment for companies to ask themselves: What kind of brand or company fundamentally are we? How committed are we really to driving positive impact? What should we be doing differently now to ensure future, sustained success for us and our key stakeholders?  

There’s no better time than now to focus on One Thing That Really Matters for 2014 and take bold, meaningful steps towards closing the CSR Gap for your brand or company. 

Here’s to a great, change-filled 2014!

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1 comment about "One Thing That Really Matters For 2014: Closing The CSR Gap ".
  1. Dave Roberts from YouthLearn2Lead , March 20, 2014 at 9:34 p.m.
    Craig, You have written a great article about cause marketing. I agree with everything you shared. Thank you for your insight and expertise. It is very helpful!