011 – January 2014
Bye Bye Scepticism: How and Why CSR Communications Works
If the PR world has an equivalent of the UK’s PPI mis-selling scandal, it is surely the CSR-based communications campaign. .
Note, this isn’t scepticism about underlying policy or philosophy. Heavyweights on either side – e.g. Forbes (for) and WSJ (against) – continue to debate. Companies may, or may not, have a social responsibility. But, motivation aside, behaviour indicates value. 90% of Fortune 500 companies have explicit CSR objectives. Half issue specific CSR reports1. Even two-thirds of crusty CFOs see return, says McKinsey.
But it is serious scepticism about the current value of CSR presentation investment. All too often CSR campaigns appear worthy and unfocused. Just-in-case insurance policies, they ‘tick’ the politically- correct compliance ‘box’. Yet how they work – or to what intended hard business outcome (if any) -remains unclear.
But the research case for the value of strategic planned CSR communication really is building. And, as Keynes supposedly said, “when the facts change…” Here’s how.
Evidence and Engagement
The B2C research ‘jury’ is already long-term supportive. Active CSR promotion drives positive brand and product evaluations. It also increases both satisfaction and loyalty2.
Now new US research3 is surprisingly positive about B2B. For corporate comms professionals, it offers a practical evidenced prescription.
As a necessary preliminary, the new work distinguishes two forms of CSR engagement for B2B:
- Business practice (BP) CSR focuses on e.g. employees and customers: think brand sponsorship or cause-related product marketing.
- Philanthropic (PH) CSR addresses e.g. community and third-sector: think community volunteering, social marketing or corporate charitable contributions.
BP CSR and Trust
In the B2B context, BP delivers trust and (ultimately) enhanced loyalty. The BP toolkit is particularly powerful, the research finds, in three specific scenarios:
- Compensating high market uncertainty or turbulence
- Supporting/shifting product perceptions
- Offsetting infrequent customer engagement and shallow relationships.
How and why does it work? BP is practical or ‘instrumental. Grounded in classic social exchange theory, it’s based on competitive ‘survival’ drivers and highlights concrete actions. This is active stakeholder marketing in which something is clearly ‘traded’. And the acquired strong CSR reputation signals trustworthiness.
PH CSR and Belonging
But now posit situations where trust is necessary but not sufficient. Where, say:
- Competitive market intensity is high
- Or the customer itself reveals a strong CSR orientation.
If your task is to create a strong association – or ‘belongingness’ – then, prompts the research, switch to the PH toolkit.
How and why? PH activities are soft: expressive, emotional, even ‘warm and fuzzy’. They signal the societal or ethical. Their outcomes are human welfare and goodwill. They drive measurable customer identification.
So let’s leave philosophy and political correctness to others. Even this long-term sceptic concurs: as a communications toolkit, it seems to work. Embrace it!
(1) Luo and Bhattacharya (2009), Journal of Marketing, 73 (6) 198-213. (2) Bhattacharya and Sen (2003), Journal of Marketing, 67 (2) 76-88. (3) Homburg, Stierl and Bornemann (2013), Journal of Marketing, 77 (6) 54-72.