Corporate social responsibility has gone through a quiet evolution in the past decade, and that's a good thing. You may remember when it meant spending a Friday afternoon planting trees at a local school. Or maybe doing a charity fun run. While such activities still take place, the idea of businesses "doing good" has broadened.
As a brand strategist and researcher, Anne Bahr Thompson has watched this development take shape. In simple terms, corporate social responsibility today is more than just a line on the balance sheet.
"Doing good is not a cost of doing business," she says. "It's an investment into your reputation. It's an investment into your brand. What those investments get you is more loyal customers and more loyal employees. Ultimately, greater loyalty leads to greater profits."
This idea may feel a little uncomfortable. Our traditions tell us that doing good should be altruistic. We shouldn't get something for it – because, if we do, how can that be "good" in the purest sense? In our Expert Interview podcast, Bahr Thompson confronts this moral dissonance head-on.
"[Doing good] is not about becoming a nonprofit. We’re in a new time in society. There are new demands being made on everybody, and there's no reason businesses shouldn't respond to that," she says.
In other words, businesses need to step up to do their bit for society, and if they benefit from that, so much the better. Everyone's a winner.
This approach is reflected in the title of her new book, "Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit." It's based on in-depth research by Bahr Thompson that looked at what people think about companies as corporate citizens.
Out of this research came Bahr Thompson's five steps to "brand citizenship" – a framework built on what she found, but also a call to action.
"Brand citizenship runs across something I call the 'me-to-we continuum,'" she explains. "It's a call for companies to break down silos and start behaving in a more integrative manner across departments, to co-create and collaborate with their customers and their employees, and join things up.
"It's about moving in an honest and sincere manner from a higher purpose. But not a higher purpose that's altruistic; a higher purpose that's related to what your business is about and how your business serves both its customers and society," she continues.
The "me-to-we continuum" pinpoints how corporate social responsibility has changed. CSR used to be based on "we" – society or the community. Today, it's still about "we," but it starts with "me" – the customer or employee.
So, it follows that the first step toward brand citizenship is trust, squarely in the "me" zone. For Bahr Thompson, this is about "hard work, diligence, constantly listening, and being willing to take a risk and make a mistake."
Importantly, this applies internally as well as externally – you need to build trust with employees as well as customers.
The second step is enrichment, again focused on "me." Bahr Thompson cites Apple as a brand that enriches people's lives, by putting communication and entertainment at their fingertips.
Third is responsibility, the "pivot point between being a 'me' brand and being given permission to become a 'we' brand," she says. Companies must show responsibility to their employees, for example through fair wages, and also responsibility to society.
Indeed, community is the fourth step along the me-to-we continuum. Here, Bahr Thompson talks about companies that have successfully built real communities around their brands, and not just online – for example, the garden days run by cleaning brand Mrs. Meyer's.
With the final step, contribution, we arrive at the "we" end of the continuum. This is about enriching the world, not just our own individual experiences. An example of this is the coffee brand Kenco, which helps young men in Honduras to escape a life of gangs and drugs, bettering society as well as the beneficiaries of the scheme.
Brand citizenship is a journey, Bahr Thompson concedes, but "society is changing the dynamic and raising the bar every day." Organizations of all sizes need to think about this and start experimenting.
She admits that this may sound daunting, but says, "Inside yourselves you know it's right, and I challenge you to take a risk. Do it one day and then do it again the next day, and then little by little, you'll change your culture." And hopefully, the world.
In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Bahr Thompson tells us more about the research that lies behind her book, and its five-step journey to brand citizenship.
Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.
What are your top tips for doing good – for yourself, your company, and your community? Join the discussion, below!
"The best leaders, the ones who make the most change, know that communications is not a soft skill but a rock-hard competency." -Sally Susman
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