Today, smart companies have tenured professionals who lead all or most of these functions under one stand-alone umbrella and basically in service to the company and its many departments. Sure, there have always been global brands that were pacesetters for these changes, but regulations and public scrutiny have changed the rules of engagement.
MK: Who is driving the push for greater focus on social and environmental performance amongst your clients?
JE: In our work with clients, particularly those in heavily regulated industries like energy and manufacturing, we see priority and focus coming from all aspects of the internal organization. Mitigation and remediation certainly put pressure on businesses and more so in industries such as energy, health and bio-tech.
What we see in our brand management role with clients in multiple markets is a voracious appetite in the court of public opinion—which now plays in social media—for disclosure and pro-active communications. Consumers and customers in general—whether B2B or B2C—are going to be the loudest group and will ask questions sooner or later. Issues management strategy can help in managing activist groups. But if your potential or existing clients challenge you, be prepared to lose them to other brands if they don’t like what you say. That’s not to say that employees and investors don’t play key roles in managing your risks and being responsible. But when you remove or reduce the power of financial gain to win favor, we are all consumers and we vote with our feet.
Footnote: Gen Z, our youngest marketplace-viable generation, is unbelievably astute, and I expect their demands and expectations of accountability to have a stronger impact than Millennials. Social and political demographers continue to forecast that this next generation will have the rage of Gen Y, the tenacity of Gen X and the loyalty (and lack of forgiveness) of the Boomers. Their role as consumers will overshadow the rest. And their advocacy will make or break brands. Best be prepared.
MK: What advice do you have for creating successful partnerships?
JE: Regardless of whether you work for a global business or a single stand-alone shop, you should collaborate with partners that are open and willing to support you. I often see businesses make social investments that don't align with one or more of these groups' passions and engagement. This usually results in a one-time engagement and a failed relationship.
We recommend first doing the internal work to identify the values you want to promote, the social impact you may have and where, and the categories of nonprofits and public/private groups that make sense. Once you've got that strategy in place, it's much easier to research and identify potential partners.
Treat it like hiring an employee. Get to know each other and transparently discuss your challenges and concerns. Then, the magic happens. Real, vibrant partnerships develop and they are much bigger and better than a cookie cutter sponsorship package that a random organization asks you to fund.
MK: What is your advice for brands and businesses in industries that aren't heavily regulated? What's the ROI in being bold about your business position on CSR for such companies?