If the rewards are so big, why aren't all companies cracking the 'force for good' issue?

Telefonica's Jonathan Earle: is CSR a force for good, or about patting ourselves on the back?
Telefonica's Jonathan Earle: is CSR a force for good, or about patting ourselves on the back?

Is doing the right thing important to society or commercially savvy? This was the theme of an Oystercatchers debate this week. But if the rewards are so good, why isn't everyone cracking it? asks Jonathan Earle, head of strategy, planning, innovation and customer experience, Telefónica.

Millennials will proactively choose companies that do good for society and with the proliferation of smart devices, will also shun those companies that don't. This was the core customer insight that the debate centred on last night.

We heard from the 'usual suspects', like M&S (Plan A), Unilever and Dove, that have embedded Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into their company DNA. They said they are underpinning both by having a very clear brand purpose which is driving a series of tangible and intangible benefits.

These benefits include: revenues and profit growth; customer acquisition; customer satisfaction; PR; forgiveness for when things go wrong and let's face it, it does from time to time; and higher staff retention and satisfaction.

So why isn't everyone cracking it if the rewards are so good?

It's left hand and right hand: the CSR team versus the commercial side, greenies versus insensitive capitalist pigs, with both looking at each other with mistrust

Several reasons were put forward by the panel, hosted by Oystercatchers' Suki Thompson, and which included Sir Vernon Ellis, Chairman, British Council; Amanda MacKenzie, CMO Aviva and seconded onto "Project Everyone"; Tom Knox, president of the IPA & chairman of DLKW Lowe; Chris MacLeod, marketing director for TfL; and Lord Moynihan.

1. Firstly, left hand and right hand: the left hand sets up a CSR team or Foundation that acts autonomously and the right hand drives the commercial side, and never the two shall meet - "greenies versus insensitive capitalist pigs" with both looking at each other with mistrust.

2. Secondly, many companies are unclear on their purpose and so decide that they, for example, want to save destitute children in Africa (a worthy cause) - but that has nothing whatsoever to do with their brand purpose and consumers can't make the link. Aviva were doing some excellent work in the Far East but, personally, I struggled with what that cause had to do with a UK insurer until it was explained. I question how many of their customers or prospects get the link immediately and, therefore, think differently about them.

3. It is often not driven from the CEO with shared Board KPI's and objectives.

4. Different budget holders with conflicting objectives and opinions throughout the company.

5. The classic short term versus longer term outlook and what is the first budget that gets cut when numbers aren't being hit?

Slight of hand?

Do consumers trust companies or are they putting on a good show to hide all the bad things they are doing with a slight of hand under the table?

The debate was ok although a little bit too nice with everyone agreeing with everyone else; maybe because the subject is fraught with such negative PR opportunities if you aren't saying the right things. 

The big questions for me are: if there is clear customer insight that doing the right thing is expected and that expectation is only getting stronger and stronger with our target markets, then can CSR ever catch up with expectations?

In tandem, do consumers trust companies (like politicians) to be transparent enough to do the right thing or are they putting on a good show to hide all the bad things they are doing with a slight of hand under the table?

There is no doubt companies are doing more in this space. But is it little more than patting themselves on the back or, God forbid, a speedy route for their CEO to be recognised by the palace. I leave that with you to decide.

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