Marketing and CSR: A call for authenticity

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not a new concept. But while some companies embrace it fully, where social and environmental responsibility is at the heart of their business models, the reality is that they are few and far between.

When done right; when companies are genuinely ‘doing right’, Corporate Social Responsibility lies at the core of a business – it’s the driving force behind it. And that means that the brand story can tell a genuine and authentic story.

It’s believable because it’s real.

People buy into the brand story because it’s genuine.

And their experience of the brand is positive, because it’s an authentic experience.

The good guys

Take Patagonia, for instance. A brand that’s built its entire identity around its commitment to the environment. Their dedication extends from donating 1% of total sales to environmental organisations, to implementing a lifetime repair guarantee to encourage customers to prolong the lifespan of their products, amongst other commitments to sustainable practices.

This is a brand that has preached eco-awareness for a very long time, before the concept of sustainable fashion even became a thing.

In 2022, retiring founder and owner of Patagonia, Yvon Choinard, gave away his company to a charitable trust to ensure that any profit reinvested in the business would go towards fighting climate change.

The decision recognised that, if your business depends on selling stuff, you need to use resources – which makes it pretty hard to save the planet, no matter how many renewable or recycled resources you use. By ringfencing future profits, Patagonia has ensured that the company continues to try and square the circle, and can never fall into the hands of a company that only operates in the interests of its shareholders.

This is a brand that has always taken a clear stance on CSR, has done its best to operate ethically and to help combat climate change – as a result, it has a very clear, authentic brand story.

You can’t help but like and admire the company.

The P word

Patagonia Store - Pasadena, California.

Patagonia is of course, a business that was founded on ethical principles.

The reality is that most companies were not.

Most companies, let’s face it, were created to make money, to make a profit. And in many cases, they didn’t really care how they did it, or what damage they caused.

Even now, the world is full of businesses that don’t really give a shit about the environment, or social justice, or diversity and inclusion. These are not issues that go to the heart of their business. Banking organisations, insurance companies, energy companies and retailers (for the most part) don’t have business models that are driven by a desire to do good.

Don’t believe the hype.

And yet, there are many reasons why businesses should adopt good CSR practice:

1. It’s a moral obligation

  • Businesses should give back to the people and local communities that gave them the opportunity to succeed
  • Doing no harm, or better still, having a net positive impact, is an imperative to help deliver a sustainable global economy

2. It helps to improve employee engagement and collaboration

  • Employees who are engaged in CSR activities tend to be more positive towards their employer, aiding retention
  • Those engaged in CSR are more innovative and collaborative, leading to improved performance
  • Companies that actively engage in CSR activities find it easier to recruit new (especially younger) talent

3. It helps to improve brand perception

  • Engaged employees are brand advocates and ambassadors
  • Doing good things provides an opportunity to connect with customers in a different way, on a different, more emotional level
  • And clearly, there’s the PR stories and social media feeds to consider….

But the reality is, that because they recognise that there are side benefits to adopting good CSR practice, brands are largely paying it lip service, or ‘doing the right thing’ because they feel under pressure to be seen to be doing something good.

They believe that by being seen to be good guys, they’ll generate more profit.

It’s really just a façade.

“Hey there PR team, we’ve planted some trees – now go make us look like the good guys”

OK, so maybe no-one’s that awful, but the point is there’s a lot of marketing fluff out there when it comes to CSR. What’s the point of it? When there’s no real substance there, is there any real point in trying to be seen as a ‘responsible’ brand?

Surely customers see through this?

Or, do they not want to see the truth?

The bad guys

Gas station on South College Road in Fort Collins

Let’s take the big oil producing companies.

At the time of writing, Shell had just reported 2nd quarter profits of just $5bn (£3.9bn). I say ‘just’ because it’s a relative term. In the same quarter of 2022, they’d made $11.5bn.

In anyone’s book these are massive numbers – and understandably, are particularly galling to some people in the light of the climate-change fueled fires across Europe in July of this year – leading the likes of Greenpeace to protest with a billboard outside of Shell’s headquarters in London, depicting the wildfires in Greece and the headline “OUR PROFIT, YOUR LOSS”.

The outrage is understandable. While the fires burn, Shell’s investment in oil and gas projects is predicted to rise to a total of £11.3bn in 2023.

And yet, Shell states on its website that it is helping to shape a more sustainable energy future. It goes on to say that ‘41% of our annual spending on research and development goes on projects that contribute to decarbonisation.’

Even if that’s true, it means that 59% goes on research and development into projects that don’t contribute positively.

I’m sure Shell would argue differently, but that’s just greenwashing.

Seth Godin recently said:

“The new CEO of Shell just announced that the company is redoubling its efforts to produce even more fossil fuels. Because there’s money to be made in the short-run. And because the public doesn’t see.”

Shell talks a lot about research.

Calling for ‘more research’ allows companies to stall in the face of reality. Unfortunately, as Godin suggests “As long as people don’t understand, the stalling works.”

That’s why we need the likes of Greenpeace – to call out the likes of Shell, and draw our attention to the bullshit.

Our job, as conscious consumers and inhabitants of this planet, is to ‘understand’; to scrutinise companies beyond their glossy CSR reports and eco-friendly ad campaigns, and to demand accountability.

A business world that thrives on short-term profits, where actions contradict their professed values, is one that needs vigilant oversight.

And as marketers, we need to take a stand. We should refuse to write any of that shit, because if we don’t, we’re as much a part of the problem as the oil giants.

It’s time to champion the brands that embrace CSR genuinely and call out the ones that use it as a smokescreen.

‘Understanding’ is within our reach. And when we do understand, we can make real change happen.