Portfolio Power: Unlocking The Potential Of CSR Brand Management

In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, what brands stand for matters more than ever. The vast majority of people expect companies to go way beyond just selling products and to drive positive change. Marketers who aren’t building corporate social responsibility (CSR) into the core of their brands are missing a big business-building opportunity.

Companies with multiple brands face a complex challenge. Effectively managing CSR strategies across a brand portfolio that targets different consumer segments and spans diverse categories is easier said than done. It’s often a significant challenge for individual brands to determine how and where to focus their social impact investments to maximize return. There are so many issues out there to choose from, myriad internal and external stakeholders to satisfy, and a plethora of eager and deserving nonprofit partners. Now multiply that times 5, or 10 or even 100 and you get the unique complexity that portfolio companies face. Balancing the needs of individual brands, while driving corporate focus and scale, is a next-level challenge that requires strong leadership, sharp strategic thinking, and deep collaboration. How to tackle this? Here are four best-in-class principles that CSR leaders in portfolio companies can use to optimize their impact: 



1. Focus, Focus, Focus:  Independent-minded brand managers looking to do their own thing, senior executives’ pet causes, entrenched legacy programs ... these are just a few of the chronic factors that lead to portfolio companies fragmenting their support across too many issue areas. 

The solution: Develop a broad, clear thematic focus at the enterprise level that reflects the company’s core competencies, business focus and DNA—yet leaves plenty of room for individual brands to activate in their own way. A standout example: Unilever’s Project Sunlight—a comprehensive CSR effort fostering sustainable living that the company is driving at the enterprise level, while also enabling individual brands to uniquely bring the program to life (e.g. Lifebuoy’s youth-targeted hygiene education programs and Dove’s female self-esteem awareness and education efforts). 

2. Get it Together:  Managed effectively, brand portfolios allow companies to target different consumer segments, often in very different categories, to capture broader market share. This same strategy can be powerfully leveraged when it comes to tackling social issues.

For example: A portfolio company committed at the corporate level to the broad area of financial literacy could deepen its impact by engaging multiple brands to tackle different aspects of this complex issue. Imagine a youth-focused brand investing in youth achievement, with other brands in the portfolio supporting STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math), small businesses or entrepreneurship. That’s portfolio power—using all your resources productively, to drive real impact.

3. Trust but Verify:  Corralling independent brand leaders to consistently execute against a shared corporate objective requires carrots, sticks...and structure. As CSR continues to mainstream as a core business strategy, unfortunately this increasingly means that businesspeople (and well-intentioned agencies that support them) who aren’t CSR experts are acting on gut impulse versus leveraging real expertise or best practices.

If you’re leading CSR efforts within a brand portfolio company, consider establishing structures that drive quality control, accountability and alignment with corporate focus areas. Follow the example of a $10B portfolio company with +10 global brands that established “Cause Councils”—multidisciplinary steering teams mixing brand and corporate level stakeholders to ensure optimization of company-wide CSR objectives.     

4. Make Love, Not War:  If you want your brands to work together towards a common goal, don’t just bluster and browbeat. Make it easy by creating turnkey tools and assets, including negotiating corporate partnerships that portfolio brands can leverage to engage their unique target. As an internal CSR leader, aspire to great customer service, designing CSR programs with input from the brands in your portfolio and ensuring that corporate initiatives will accelerate brands, not slow them down. Take that from an ex-P&G guy with +10 years in the trenches in this +300 brand portfolio company, working with oh-so-many corporate initiatives and programs—some of which fit my brands’ needs, and some of which definitely did not. 

All these ideas about effectively managing brand portfolios to drive CSR are part of a comprehensive strategic approach that I’ve developed called CSR Brand Management. It’s the meshing of time-tested principles of brand management perfected by marketing machines like P&G, with the reality of high stakeholder expectations about CSR. Simply put: With CSR taking on increasing importance in our fast-moving, innovate-or-else world, companies—and especially those with brand portfolios—must put CSR principles at the core or risk becoming non-competitive and irrelevant.

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