Last year threw everyone off-kilter. With seemingly everything in disarray—from business models to delivery systems to socioeconomic structure—consumers are looking more closely at how brands are responding during these challenging times. A brand’s words and actions may be remembered by consumers for years, so it is imperative that businesses and organizations are not just checking off mandatory boxes, but going above and beyond to make a positive impact in their communities.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an organization’s approach to holding itself accountable for the impact it has on society, our environment and our economy as well as in our communities. Traditionally, this concept was a secondary—maybe even tertiary—consideration in many business models, but the COVID-19 pandemic has since shoved it to the foreground. Many of the brands and their leaders who have made the decision to embrace and invest in CSR have created positive consequences in their communities that have garnered the attention and affection of consumers. Little wonder that corporate social responsibility is becoming a driving force for all businesses, aside from simply being the right thing to do.
A Forbes article in July 2020 pointed out what now in hindsight may be considered obvious: “The pandemic is the perfect acid test of many firms’ genuineness of their CSR record and strategy.” Your brand is not a logo or an identify but, rather, a feeling that the consumer has about you. To support your brand, your CSR program should authentically align with the brand’s vision and values. Consumers and employees see through platitudes and expect brands to follow through on making a measurable difference in the community. It isn’t enough to issue a statement. There has to be action behind what is promised.
Walmart is an excellent example of leveraging CSR for the benefits its employees and ultimately as an investment in long-term branding success. Employees are truly an organization’s first order of customers and the general public considers how companies treat employees as a benchmark for how they will treat customers. In early December, Walmart announced it would pay another bonus to hourly employees. It marks the fourth time since the spring that the retail behemoth has paid special bonuses to workers who have helped stock shelves, ship online orders, transport goods and serve customers during the pandemic.
LEGO is another company that clearly understands CSR as the way forward—perhaps surprising for a maker of plastic bricks. This year, the company very publicly vowed to make its products fully sustainable by 2030 and to phase out all single-use plastic in its boxes by 2025. LEGO also created a suite of initiatives around childhood education, and its website clearly lays out its commitment to responsible business practices and building an inclusive work environment for its employees. One of the company’s priorities around employees is ensuring that LEGO is a family-friendly place to work across its entire supply chain. Clearly, supporting caregivers in the workplace is an initiative that dovetails with the many challenges of 2020 and beyond.
United Airlines offers one more great example of corporate responsibility. When the pandemic erupted, United had already launched its Miles on a Mission program, which allows people to donate their miles to nonprofits and charities in need of transportation. But in the spring, the airline announced a campaign to match all donations up to 500,000 miles. This meant that in the midst of crisis, many in need could get where they needed to go, whether it was people fleeing domestic violence, veterans volunteering to help in the pandemic response, or volunteers distributing PPE and medical equipment to health care workers in the field.
In response to the ongoing, evolving public-health and economic crises of today, consumers are changing not only how they live and work, but also what they buy and from whom. Without a doubt, brands with the CSR edge will benefit over the long-term. It is up to marketers to keep the CSR momentum going. Consumers have long memories, so it behooves us all to reinforce the power of CSR long after our communities and the economy recover.