CSR Branding: Is It Becoming Unsustainable?
We see the terms âbrandâ and âsustainabilityâ mentioned together more often today than ever before. Since brands usually function as the connection between business and people, their role has evolved beyond marketing to also represent corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.Â But when a corporationâs sustainability commitments become unfulfilled promises, or fail to engender broader support â Â the future of a sustainable brand can ultimately become âunsustainable.â
The contributing factors are often complex and related, from new management and vision, to failed policies, tools and practice. Amongst the many reasons, there is one that is so essential that it practically hides in plain sight -and that is the lack ofÂ emotionally engaged employees. Â Such employees are needed not only to support and implement such programs, but to also champion its purpose and possibilities.
Building a sustainability minded corporate culture requires voices beyond that of Executives, CSO, HR, Marketing and Corporate Communications. Engagement and development opportunities should be made available to all employees, especially those who can impact the relationship between business, people and environment. Â On-boarding and trainingÂ programs should not only inform, but strive to inspire action and connect shared interests.
Study: Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability
According to a study conducted byÂ Ernst & Young and Green Biz Group on the Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability,Â employees have emerged as key stakeholders in driving the success (or Â failure) of corporate sustainability programs.
âConventional wisdom is that company sustainability initiatives are driven principally by customers or investors and shareholders, and sometimes by NGO activist groups or regulatory agencies. Â But our survey found that employees are a key driver in a significant number of companies.â
In fact when participating executives were asked to rank the top three stakeholder groups responsible for driving their companyâs sustainability initiatives, employees ranked second (cited by 22% of respondents), behind customers (37%) and ahead of shareholders (15%), policymakers (7%) and NGOs (7%).
All too often when corporations introduce their sustainability story to others â they focus theirÂ communication efforts on how they are going to build and manage their sustainability commitments. Great care is spent on explaining sustainability management tools, processes and Â methodology for how their CSR progress will be reported. Â Ironically, according to the breakdown of stakeholder groups in Six Growing Trends in Corporate Sustainability, such information would be of primary interest to those with minimal influence on sustainability programs and outcomes (shareholders, policymakers and NGOs).
This is not to say that Â customers and employees would not be interested in sustainability program progress and data. But such information is not enough to fuel broader internal interest â let alone engagement.
Why do corporations utilize formats and strategies for employee communication that they know are ineffective in connecting with people externally?Â Consider the ways corporate-wide change programs such as sustainability is introduced to employees today.
Downloadable manual of doâs and donâtsÂ â Â There is nothing inviting or engaging about rules and requirements.
One-way lecture / On-Demand Presentation âÂ Push communication and mass distribution limits human connections. On-demand may undermine importance of program.
CampaignÂ â Sustainability must be understood as a commitment, not a trend or limited Â initiative.
FYI or OptionalÂ Â â Why would employees believe their support matters in a program that ignores or discounts their voice?
Standard Industry PracticeÂ â Why launch a program that is half-hearted or like everyone else? Give employees reasons to believe in the vision of the program and the difference they can make.
Failure to connect sustainability to employee and customer interests limits the appeal and perceived relevance of such efforts. Â Beyond understanding what and how sustainability efforts will be managed, Â people also need to understand theÂ why behind a brandâs sustainability story. Â How can employees be expected to promote sustainability if they themselves have yet to find reasons to believe in it.
The methods for promoting a sustainability minded culture needs serious consideration, investment and dedication. Â Greater care and creativity is needed not only in the launch of such programs. Â But equally in how employee interest is nurtured on both a group and individual human development level. Â For example, when employees show interest, how is that interest being recognized and developed into active engagement? What programs are put in place to foster the growth and development of these potential ambassadors? Â What special tools and training is needed to develop these individuals into becoming active voices and influential stewards of such changes? Â Nurturing human development and emotional engagement is not an off-the-shelf, short-term or prescriptive process.
Corporations cannot assume they will have employee support for programs such as sustainability. Just because they launch it, doesnât mean that the interest, enthusiasm and support will naturally follow. Â Support and active engagement needs to be earned and inspired. Â The success criteria for launching a sustainability program should strive to go beyond building employee awareness, adoption or even use of new tools and processes. Â Successful employee engagement should go as far as to compel people to take action.
Compliance Does Not Equal Engagement
There is a significant difference between enabling compliance and inspiring employees to become champions of such change. Â Enabling compliance requires no emotional investment or shared belief.Â Â It can be successfully implemented through the use of new tools, support of new processes, adopting new KPIs etc. Â Â Teams can meet goals and objectives while feeling emotionally disconnected from the mission itself. Â Moreover, compliance Â implies a passive role in support of change, rather than an active role to steward and sustain it. Â Employees who comply yet feel no connection or shared sense of purpose, are unlikely to inspire support from others.
Patagoniaâs Rick Ridgeway
When employees are inspired to become a voice for a cause or change they believe in, it is theÂ shared sense of purpose Â that inspires waves of progress, fuels new innovations, and promotes infectious excitement. Â AÂ corporation can express its commitment to sustainability in ways that extend far beyond words such as policy, product and business priorities. Â Such expressions of a brandâs promises also gives people more reasons to believe in the authenticity of brandâs social responsibility commitment .
Companies that were founded with sustainability principles baked into the DNA such as Patagonia, benefit from having many voices harmoniously aligned and working to bring shared sustainability principles to life.Â Â The brandâs commitment becomes self evident in their product vision, manufacturing and sourcing process, corporate culture, and customer service policies. Their commitment to the environment becomes evident not because of Â their marketing or branding. Â Rather, it is because of the way they do business, and why they do what they do, Â that builds their credibility as a sustainable brand.
Corporations such as Starbucks, Unilever and GE Â have succeeded in nurturing a successful sustainability minded-culture. Â They are thriving examples of why the investment in developing employee emotional engagement produces lasting returns for building sustainability into business and brand. Â When sustainability evolves in the minds of employees as being more than just a corporate program, but a shared and unifying purpose -the positive social and environmental contributions of brands will be self-sustaining.
Anneliza Humlen created SocialVoice in 2009 , a proprietary program for building business by way of strengthening the people behind the brands. Her work continues today with the launch of SocialVoice LLC., a global consultancy and service network with offices in NYC and London. Its mission is to help businesses build mindful brands by humanizing brand communications, culture building and mentorship development.
This article was originally published on Social Voice and was reprinted with permission from the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series. Join TSSS for a follow up webinar with McDonaldâs CSR Chief, Bob Langert on October 23rd hosted by CSRwire.Â We will summarize the discussion from the live event on October 9th (McDonaldâs: The Trend Towards Transparency and Authenticity) and hear which of the 250+ brainstorming ideas, generated by the TSSS Community during the breakout session, on the topic of authentic sustainability communication, resonated with McDonaldâs senior leaders.
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