What’s the purpose of your CSR?

Marc Stoiber on finding your true CSR purpose

By Marc Stoiber

I’ve consulted on sustainability for eight years now. In that short time, I’ve seen the movement mature at hyper-speed.

I remember the dot-com-like frenzy to create green brands sparked by Al Gore’s hockey stick climate change graph, and the day Walmart made it okay for mainstream companies to adopt eco-efficiency. I remember the dark ages, when recession wiped sustainability off the boardroom table. But I’m happy to say, in the last two years, I’ve seen corporate green grow into adulthood, inching closer to becoming business as usual.

Today, renewable energy is, in many markets, reaching parity in pricing with fossil fuels. Green buildings, recycled materials, corporate eco-efficiency and eco-innovation are all par for the course.

What I haven’t seen, however, is consistency in the way brands leverage their green attributes.

On one hand, you have companies like Adidas. Being German, Adidas is well-versed in sustainability and a leader in the field. But being German, they’re also understated about the whole thing, largely refusing to brand its green innovation. The result: a big brand differentiator left on the table.

On the other hand, you have companies like BP. Remember “Beyond Petroleum”? I believe this still stands as the single most awesomely overstated green brand promise I have ever seen. Prove me wrong.

In the middle, there’s the rest of us – companies that believe CSR is not just an option anymore, but wonder how to best turn it into a meaningful brand differentiator.

Here’s how.

Ask yourself, “Why do you exist?”

In his now-ubiquitous TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek describes how great movements always start with an understanding of why they exist. No, this doesn’t mean “to serve the customer” or “to make people smile.” It means really understanding your deep-down core purpose. Why. You. Exist.

Assuming you’ve done the painful self-examination and discovered your reason for being, this revelation undoubtedly showed its worth – guiding everything from the sort of products you innovate to the people that you hire.

It should also determine the way you brand your green.

Let’s say you run a bank’s CSR program. Your brand is built on straight talk. It’s up to you to figure out which of your many CSR initiatives to attach to your brand. Is it the charity run you host each year? Your partnership with a “transparency in banking” initiative? Or an employee volunteering program? The second is the only one that reinforces your straight-talk brand. It’s a reason to believe your brand walks the talk, and gives consumers who believe in straight talk another reason to bank with you.

If this sounds like something that should be apparent to all brand managers, take a look around. How many have CSR initiatives that reinforce their brand promise? Not many.

Now look at the number of startups that have CSR baked right into their brand. (Buy a pair of Toms Shoes, and Toms gives a pair to someone in need, for example.) A much higher number.

That so many established brands haven’t figured out how to align their purpose with their CSR, and so many startups have CSR baked into their brand, should be an indicator that this could be a signpost for the future.

So, if you’re still staring at the whiteboard, wondering how to leverage your CSR, take a look a bit further back. It could pay to revisit your brand’s purpose first.

Marc Stoiber is a Vancouver-based creative strategist/consultant who helps future-proof brands. @marcstoiber