Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Pepsi Cola

Social media continues to impact businesses and nonprofits in unforeseen ways. Perhaps the greatest trend of the moment is the fusion of corporate and philanthropic interests, which in turn is producing growing pains and change. It’s likely that the requirements of online transparency will demand a new era of authenticity in corporate community investment efforts.

This trend results from demands for better corporate citizenship and community participation, transparency digressions, and frankly, very public cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs that have exposed weaknesses in the social media realms.

It’s a problem that keeps coming up, and won’t go away. This will force organizations and companies to become much more mindful about how they invest in their communities.

This discussion is one that I’ve been having piecemeal with many people, in and outside of Zoetica, from cohorts Kami Huyse and Beth Kanter to change-minded folks like Alex Bornkessel, Allyson Kapin, Dan Morrison and Amy Sample Ward. I want to thank each of them for our ongoing dialogue, and directly or indirectly helping synthesize this post. My purpose in publishing this is soliciting feedback to evolve this authenticity theory. Please sound off.

The Current Authenticity Situation

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Indique Heights Owner and Chef K.N. Vinod Teaches at DC Central Kitchen

Many companies blur the lines now between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility, which in turn creates problems. One is not the other, but unfortunately, the current business environment will likely continue blurring the definitions rather than adhering to form. In that sense, this reminds me of the personal brand vs. reputation debate.

Ninety percent of companies cannot discern the difference between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. Altruism often fails or is not thought out. In reality, most companies think, “Yeah, we’ll give some money to charity,” and let their executives figure out which ones. In the social media world, now they just outsource it to their communities (in both good and bad ways).

We must accept this level of understanding and approach CSR/cause marketing in a manner that raises the general level of ethics at play. In either case, social media continues exposing weaknesses in cause marketing, which will force such initiatives to become more CSR-oriented.

Moving forward, regardless of purpose, companies need to become much more authentic in their community investments. Authenticity means instead of simply throwing money at a cause or contest, they would directly address their missions, or the problems directly/indirectly created by their business. A third category — family — would be the causes that impact their employees, such as healthcare.

By being much more mindful in their cause initiatives, companies become better community citizens. And frankly, their online communities of interest will start demanding it.

Three Forms of Authenticity in Community Investment

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Mindful authenticity in corporate community investment manifests itself in three ways:

Mission: Every company tries to market something. In doing so they have a mission and a product or service that fulfills a need. As such, authenticity dictates that the company invest in a community in a manner that relates to their core competency and also their marketing initiatives.

This is much more important for cause marketing initiatives. For example, if a company’s mission is information technology oriented, then literacy and education are obvious investments. So is poverty, and ensuring that the digital divide gets conquered. But investing everything the company had in cancer research makes no sense as an IT company’s strategic investment. It would for a healthcare oriented company.

Problem: In life we all create wreckage, both directly and indirectly. Some do less, some do more. In the environmental sense, every person has a carbon footprint. Thus it’s safe to say every company impacts the community in some negative ways.

Authenticity here dictates acknowledgment of impact, and actions to address the damage. For example, Exxon Mobile may want to make a greater investment in green energy than a trifle $100 million investment. Or instead of allocating $20 million for Pepsi Refresh, Pepsi would take a few million dollars to support causes addressing obesity issues as well as investing in reusable container technologies.

Family: Right now I would classify 90 percent of corporate community investments in this category, and that’s a mistake. Many of the crowd-sourced contest initiatives go wayward in this sense, too… Why? Because most of the investments are not thought-out and represent haphazard donations. They don’t acknowledge the corporate mission or the problems the company creates.

That being said, we all have or are employees. Companies represent big families, and in that sense it’s right to take a portion of donatable funds, and invest in real human issues like autism research or homelessness.

The right formula of mission, problem and family needs to be weighed intelligently by each organization. But that’s where the growth comes. Because blindly investing in family causes, or solely focusing on mission based initiatives causes an organization to stray from its community. Given today’s social media environment, at some point a cry will come for more balanced investment approaches.

What do you think about authenticity in corporate social responsibility?

Pepsi Refresh Campaign Critique

Today on the Buzz Bin I wrote a piece on Fragmented Branding that breaks down the Pepsi Refresh corporate social responsibility campaign as an example. Five points that should be noted in that piece:

1) Brand distortion creates a situation where communicators attempt to paint the abstract. In the case of fragmented branding, some pieces are issued by corporate, others are the expressions of stakeholders, positive and negative.

2) Both Richard Laermer and I dubbed the campaign an instant success on our podcast, simply because of the many conversations it has created.

3) What was notable about Pepsi Refresh project was the size of the purse, as well as the opt out of the Super Bowl. Copy cat marketing efforts are sure to arise, and less successfully so.

4) Corporate social philanthropy needs to be authentic to the core of the company. Customer-centric efforts with crowdsourcing efforts are cool, but ultimately represent a novelty, especially for niche brands that are not serving mass markets. Companies will be better served building programs around the corporate culture or strategy.

5) Contest fatigue is setting in. And criticism of cause-based contests is also on the rise. Make sure this is the right tactic as opposed to engaging your community in a different, more sustainable way.

You can read the whole post on the Buzz Bin, where I blog every Monday about social media communications.