Published On: June 2, 2020Categories: CSR Trends

Author: Katie Dunlap

In today’s unpredictable world, corporate activism is becoming more acceptable, and expected, than ever before. The reality is the role of the Corporate Responsibility professional has changed drastically in the past year alone because of defining events. Before 2017, many CSR programs would have continued as planned without altering their strategy to uniquely focus on natural disasters or the political climate.

Tables Have Turned on CSR

We might not have included this section even one year ago, but now, it’s impossible not to! When creating a CSR program, it is important to consider your company’s comfort level with activism. That is to ask: when will your company feel comfortable speaking out? When will your CEO feel comfortable about speaking out? And how will they speak out?

It’s essential to recognize that this corporate activism is a culmination of the evolution of CSR. CSR has evolved into a business function, one aligned with corporate strategy, efficiencies and most notably values. Brands are expected to have strong values and consumers expect brands to act upon those values. The CSR culture often permeates a company and culture to the point that employees couldn’t imagine their company not taking a stance on certain issues that run counter to their corporate values. As brands continue this process of activism, they will begin to recognize that it is an opportunity for differentiation and a tool that allows employees to engage with purpose on an entirely different level than ever before.

Becoming an Activist

When thinking when and how your company would feel most comfortable activating around what they believe in, consider authenticity and also consider the level at which you will react: creating a conversation, taking a stand, or making a scene.

The key to successful activism is to respond authentically to whatever issue resonates with your company’s culture, operations, or brand. Your authenticity is established through both the level of activism that you respond with, as well as the communication used.

The first level of activism is recognizing an issue and beginning the conversation. Nike has a long history of beginning conversations surrounding women’s equality in sports – like their “Make Yourself” campaign. This step allows brands to engage at a level that they feel comfortable, but also connect brands to consumers and show customers that they are aware of the topic.

The next level of corporate activism is taking a stand. CVS Health also has a long history of taking stands. In 2014, CVS took a stand, ceasing to sell tobacco in their stores. They furthered their commitment to changing the company name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health – showing the world their intentions. And finally, just this January, CVS announced that they will stop digitally altering photographs used in-store and online to help create a healthier and more realistic environment for young women. Those that are altered will be marked as such. Taking a stand is certainly a higher risk. There’s a chance that you may alienate potential consumers because of the side chosen, but if you know your audience, they should more strongly identify with your brand than ever before.

Lastly, in terms of activism, a brand can choose to take a stand AND cause a scene! Earlier this year, UNICEF went to an extreme – parking 27 buses in the streets of New York City, effectively stopping traffic in order to advocate for the 27 million students currently missing school due to war and conflict. The buses also had statistics written on them that were meant to educate the UN General Assembly who was in town that week. When a brand makes a scene, it is an elevation in commitment. Not only has the brand taken a stand, but it has blasted that stand out for the world to see.

Certainly, this can be risky. When a brand risks upsetting a large part of the population, they can face criticism due to these actions. But if they are acting from a place of authenticity and in accordance with the brand’s values, their target audience will likely be supportive of the message and become more brand-loyal as a result.

If your company has yet to engage with CSR through this lens of activism, and you’re wondering where to start:

  • Establish your company’s values. No matter what, corporate activism must be authentic and values-driven.
  • Build on the values that run so deeply that key stakeholders, employees, and consumers would expect action from the company.
  • Measure the level of response your company would be comfortable with and your consumers would view as an authentic response.
  • Monitor the news for events in that space, whether it’s environmental, political, or social.

Or download our easy-to-use Corporate Activism Workbook from our comprehensive CSR Toolkit to help get you started with building your new strategies!

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