We’ve all seen the recent trend by businesses towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability reporting. Since the late 1990s, organisations have started to recognise the importance of such reporting in building the value of their brand. Unfortunately, what many companies haven’t been able to grasp is how to truly integrate CSR and sustainability reporting with their brand. Too often it appears as an awkward add-on, an afterthought, something disingenuous. But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have to be this way.
So where does brand fit in relation to CSR and sustainability reporting? Dr Stephen Downes, Principal of market research and brand strategy firm, QBrand Consulting, recently shared his views on this topic at a corporate reporting open-day event organised by WellmarkPerspexa.
Firstly, what is a brand? According to Dr Downes, what he described as the neuro-psycho-cultural brand paradigm views a brand as:
Under each of these conceptualisations, brands shape customer attitudes, perceptions, expectations and behaviour – whether rational or irrational, tangible or intangible, conscious or unconscious, he said. ‘And it’s important to realise that customers can’t, and often won’t, separate what’s happening with CSR and sustainability reporting from everything else they see, hear and know about a brand.’
Dr Downes explained that CSR reporting has often been used inappropriately, and even cynically, as disposable packaging, a cost of doing business, brand ‘insurance’ or economic self-interest. ‘The concepts of “greenwashing” and “necessary evil” are self-evidently insincere and can’t build sustainable brand resonance. Viewing CSR as brand “insurance” positions it as a grudge purchase to counter future problems. And, while economic self-interest at least recognises that CSR is positive for business, it fails to understand the leverage that comes from doing things that are good for the bottom line and good for the brand in the long run,’ he said. These usages, Dr Downes continued, do not lend themselves to making the brand look authentic or credible. ‘CSR reports provide a real opportunity to capture more about the brand, but many companies don’t recognise this.’
CSR has the most to offer, in terms of brand building, when it reflects something deep about the brand’s character and its values, according to Dr Downes. ‘The reporting should genuinely reflect what the brand believes in, what it stands for, what it will fight for. Brand values can’t simply be conjured up, created by a brand consultant or borrowed from a celebrity endorser. You can’t just add a new logo with a new set of values attached, as some companies mistakenly try to do.
‘Authentic brand values have to be about life, about society, about big-picture issues, about the world. They shouldn’t just be about the company,’ said Dr Downes. ‘But that’s the problem with many global corporations – it’s all about them. They should be telling people what they think is important. Values have to come from the heart and soul of the brand.’ He emphasised that input and support for CSR and sustainability must come from all levels of the company, top-down and bottom-up.
That begs the question: how do you find the values that are true to a brand? Many methods are available but Dr Downes particularly likes the ‘tombstone’ exercise. ‘If the brand disappeared today, what would people write on its tombstone? What would they miss about the brand?’ he asked. ‘What kind of brand-related behaviours are most highly regarded and rewarded in the company?’ In fact, we can start even further back with brand vision and thinking about how the brand will make the world a better place, he said. ‘A lot of good-quality, really successful brand strategy has started from this perspective.’
When companies are integrating brand and CSR/sustainability reporting, they need to know what’s in the hearts and minds of customers, Dr Downes said. ‘Not just consumers but also business buyers, business partners, shareholders and analysts – this is a two-way dialogue where corporations look for values they have in common with their target audiences. However, it’s not realistic for them to say they care about exactly everything their audiences care about.’
Dr Downes also highlighted some common pitfalls. ‘Not acknowledging issues of concern is a real risk because it’s so easy for people to find out the truth. Companies need to honestly address concerns to defuse cynicism and counter-arguments,’ he said. Not using plain, easy-to-understand language is another no-no. Some reports really take on their own language and the whole message of CSR and sustainability gets lost, he said.
‘CSR and sustainability reporting is a huge opportunity for companies to emphasise authentic, meaningful and differentiating brand values. Let the brand show its character and be real,’ Dr Downes advised.
So brands build corporate value … but values build brands. Food for thought.