4 Ways Agencies Can Add Meaning to Corporate Social Responsibility Programs

Creating a culture of purpose

A large, cross-generational majority of consumers expect companies to display a level of corporate social responsibility. Last year, Havas Worldwide's Project: Superbrand report, which surveyed 10,131 people ages 18 and over in 28 markets around the world, revealed that 73 percent said companies have a responsibility to do more than just generate profit, while 75 percent believed companies have an ethical obligation to operate in ways that do not harm the environment. Respondents included a cross section of consumers representing millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers.

Matt Walker

It's clear companies have a unique opportunity to do the right thing and reap the rewards. And their ad agencies have new opportunities to deepen their meaning and importance as they assist clients down a path of purpose.

However, agencies have traditionally had little involvement in helping their clients develop corporate social responsibility programs, and that needs to change.  CSR programs are becoming an integral manifestation of a client's brand, and building brands is what agencies do best.

Here are four ways advertisers and their agencies can refresh and refocus their CSR programs:

Put your brand at the center

Experts say CSR efforts must be aligned with overall business goals. While this is vital, equally important (if not more so) is to ensure your brand is at the nucleus of your CSR efforts. Your brand is your ethos, what you stand for. It has more to do with meaning than marketing. Bring that to life in how you decide to execute your CSR efforts for greater impact. Take Tide's Loads of Hope program as a prime example. P&Gs commitment to restoring the lives of disaster victims takes many forms, one of which is "Loads of Hope." Massive mobile cleaning facilities roll into towns after disasters, helping nearly 45,000 families restore a sense of normalcy and garnering tremendous media coverage along the way—all by turning a cleaning product into a support vehicle and living their brand, touching lives and improving life.

Put leadership in the spotlight

Your top executives are the most highly visible folks in your company. They appear on CNBC, speak at key conferences and talk to the press. Clearly, they will need to articulate the vision behind all CSR initiatives. More importantly, they should be directly and visibly involved. Agency folks are in the creative, strategy and media business. We're also in the relationship-building business. So use the relationships you've built over the years to encourage client leadership to engage deeply in CSR efforts. While not all consumers know who the CEO of a favored company is, their employees do. And studies indicate that when leadership, specifically that of the CEO, is involved in societal issues, employee advocacy and engagement, motivation to perform, and desire to stay at the company all increase.

Empower your consumers to take action

Engaging, entertaining, inspiring and motivating consumers to take action are all part of an agency's raison d'être. So why not help your clients by applying these same talents to their CSR efforts? Consider engaging ways not only to share CSR initiatives with consumers but to directly involve them. It could be as simple as providing consumers with a vehicle to make donations. You could empower them to make suggestions for new initiatives. Perhaps you could even send a core group of brand advocates on a charity mission with company employees and members of your client's leadership team. Truly bring the consumer in, and then bring the experience to life.

Don't build a program, create a culture

A CSR program will be nothing more than a program when it's administered by a select few. Open it up to every employee, make it easy for them to participate, recognize their contributions, and something phenomenal will happen: The uplifting power of purpose will seep into every aspect of the organization. Agencies have embraced the potency of rapid collaboration and are adept at cross-pollinating ideas among departments and teams to produce more resonant and meaningful campaigns. 

Agencies should encourage their clients to apply the same mentality to their CSR initiatives. Open the input, action and satisfaction of social responsibility to everyone at every level. Do that, and watch your CSR programs create a culture of purpose and prosperity.

Matt Walker (@MattyThinks) is a partner and creative director at WHITE64.