We were just settling into the new decade when COVID-19 pulled the rug right out from underneath us. Amid the chaos, brands of all shapes and sizes hastened to release statements about unprecedented times, strength in numbers, and corporate citizenship. For a short time, it seemed that corporate social responsibility was finally coming into sharp focus.
Apple gave 10 million N95 masks to healthcare workers, DoorDash and partner organizations donated 1 million pounds of groceries to combat food insecurity, and Spectrum extended free internet service to students participating in at-home learning. Months later, many brands are still talking about these “unprecedented times” even as most of the landscape is back to business as usual.
Balancing profitability with social impact is not easy, but brands still engage in CSR because they know consumers want it. More than half of Americans say they factor value alignment into their purchase decisions, according to Forrester. The problem is that many brands’ idea of CSR is little more than shallow engagement with socially conscious business practices to curry favor.
Treating crises triggered by the pandemic as marketing opportunities puts your reputation and customer relationships at serious risk. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is underestimating consumers, who are incredibly perceptive of corporate hypocrisy. And in the world of advertising and marketing, perception is reality.
Be True to Your CSR Pledge
If your target audience perceives your CSR activities and subsequent messaging around them as self-serving, superficial, or hasty, you will draw ire. For example, think about all the virtue signaling businesses engaged in after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Collectively, America’s 50 largest public companies pledged almost $50 billion to combat racial inequality, which sounds impressive. Upon closer examination, however, it became clear that more than 90% of that sum was funneled into loans or investments from which those companies could profit. Only a small portion went to organizations dedicated to criminal justice reform.
Other brands tried to sidestep the solution in an attempt to appear on the right side of history. For example, Uber erected billboards admonishing racism, while Lyft ran ads featuring a Maya Angelou poem. No amount of anti-racism advertising can erase the fact that these ride-sharing apps exploit people of color for cheap labor and spent millions lobbying for a California ballot initiative that permanently exempted them from providing benefits to drivers.
In the end, are these companies really wielding their power for good? Not nearly as much as they would like us to believe. I do not mean to scare you away from promoting the good your brand can do in the world, but it is absolutely crucial to align it with corporate values and revenue drivers. That way, there is an incentive to follow through.
Take Expedia Group, which pledged up to $12 million to UNICEF to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the far-flung corners of the world. The incentive for Expedia is clear: The quicker the coronavirus is under control, the more people will travel.
By donating to global efforts for testing, inoculation, and treatment, Expedia is making the world safer for more travel while helping to increase its revenue. Under the promotion, each purchase made through an Expedia Group app triggers a $2 donation, meaning people who care about Unicef’s efforts are more likely to shop with Expedia over a competitor. As of November, Expedia’s shares were up over 30%.
Dr. Bronner’s offers another example. The storied organic soap maker became a Benefit Corporation in California in 2015, meaning it has legally protected social and environmental impact requirements. At the same time, it is a Certified B Corp, which proves it voluntarily meets higher transparency, accountability, and performance standards. These kinds of third-party validators ensure Dr. Bronner’s actually lives up to its purported corporate values.
In the immediate wake of COVID-19, many brands competed to be the loudest among the chorus of CSR announcements. Unfortunately, many more fell short of those promises and harmed their credibility and customer relationships in the process. Consumers are no longer taking CSR pledges at face value. If you really want to reap the rewards of CSR, you must lead with authenticity and follow-through.