Top down view of someone holding a very small pink flower in their fingers.

I never liked the word “branding”. It’s so undifferentiated and treacly and it can often mean plain-old “design”. For many businesses, “branding” is just the latest decoration on top of a stale cake that has been served over and over.

Brand Not Branding

But a “brand”, despite its derivation from the above, is a slightly different beast. A “brand” has become much more than a marketing strategy, a shiny logo, or a slogan; a true brand represents the core values of any organization. A company or organization’s brand is derived not from “branding” but from the totality of its work, initiatives, products and services, positioning, responsibility to stakeholders and communications (including design and marketing efforts).

And more than ever, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives are becoming the heart and soul of how companies are thinking about their future strategically and responsibly.


The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is “a CEO-led organization of forward-thinking companies that galvanizes the global business community to create a sustainable future for business, society and the environment”. They define CSR as the “commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large”. It might be a mouthful, but it brings home the point that a successful CSR program impacts the entire organization and the communities and globe that they serve. Members of WBCSD, like many others, now regard CSR as an integral part of an organization’s day-to-day operations.

This didn’t necessarily come from some great corporate “aha” moment. It came about in large part because consumers began to make real brand choices based on the values of a company, not just the products themselves. This sea change is found throughout the consumer landscape. College students demand that endowments of universities divest of businesses that abuse workers or pillage the environment. Investors look for responsible funds that focus on advancing socially responsible businesses that address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Individuals use products from brands they admire and support.

Just the Facts

A 2014 study titled The Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility examined more than 30,000 consumers in 60 countries worldwide to better understand the impact of CSR on behavior. They sought to understand the impact of CSR on the actions of consumers. As they point out, most people will say they care about the environment or world hunger — but are they making day-to-day decisions based on the values or organizations. Here is what they found.

Of the over 30,000 global consumers surveyed:

  • 67% prefer to work for socially responsible companies
  • 55% will pay extra for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact
  • 52% made at least one purchase in the past six months from one or more socially responsible companies
  • 52% check product packaging to ensure sustainable impact
  • 49% volunteer and/or donate to organizations engaged in social and environmental programs

Marketing Meets CSR

In their 2010 book, Marketing 3.0, Philip Kotler and Hermawan Kartajaya describe the new role of CSR in marketing and brand engagement. They show the evolution of marketing from product-based to consumer-based to values-based marketing. The book clearly demonstrates how to incorporate this new thinking into a brand’s identity. They see companies shifting from a customer-centric approach to a humanistic approach, one that balances corporate responsibility with profitability.

Now What?

So how does a brand successfully communicate the values of your organization?

Amy Fenton, Nielsen’s global leader of public development and sustainability, said, “It’s no longer a question if consumers care about social impact. Consumers do care and show they do through their actions. Now the focus is on determining how your brand can effectively create shared value by marrying the appropriate social cause and consumer segments.’

Here is a quick summary several of the several key ingredients outlined the Nielsen study in implementing a successful CSR program:

  • Be clear, actionable and global in communicating the vision and values of the organization.
  • Get the buy-in of the C-suite. Organizational leadership needs to make CSR a priority.
  • As with any communications strategy, make sure the message, tone, and look and feel of all communications are consistent and align with the organization’s core values.
  • Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and measure the success of the CSR efforts.

None of these are easy. Lord knows, doing this internally even at a small company like Manoverboard is difficult. I’m grateful to have the the B Corporation assessment, which we take every two years, to guide our work and aspirations with beautiful logic and sound metrics. If you haven’t taken it, I encourage you to give it a go.

Top-Ranked Brands

There are many companies with CSR programs but not all leverage or communicate them to help consumers understand their values. Reputation Institute does an annual survey of companies with the highest reputation scores for CSR initiatives. Google, Microsoft, The Walt Disney Company, BMW and Apple scored the highest in 2014. Not surprisingly these companies are some of the most successful in their market category. According to the Reputation Institute’s website “Firms with better CSR reputation have a much higher ability to foster desired supportive behaviors among consumers, including buying their products, recommending their company, or trusting the company to do the right thing when faced with difficulties or disruptions.”

CSR = Brand Engagement

There is an old (and maybe weird) saying that “the camel’s nose is in the tent”, meaning you cannot deny or turn this trend around. CSR is in the tent and is impacting how investors, consumers, activists, and communities respond to brands with not only with their wallets but with their employment choices, their influence, and their consumption and purchasing behaviors.

A successful CSR strategy is one that is shared, nurtured and communicated consistently to all stakeholders and shareholders. If you would like guidance in helping to tell your CSR story, please give us a ring. I’d be happy to discuss how you can successfully communicate the change-seeking strategy and values of your organization.