Authentic CSR strategies should be for life… not just for lockdown

With the current COVID-19 crisis still dominating our daily lives and the news agenda, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the situation and instead look for a sense of normality for your day-to day.

Working in PR and social media, I see how brands are trying to contribute to this; and since the crisis began, it’s been incredibly refreshing to see how brands have responded. I have no doubt that the work coming from marketing and communications teams now will establish reputations for years to come.

However, the role that brands play in our communities was evolving long before the pandemic hit, with corporate social responsibility (CSR) no longer being a ‘nice to have’, but an expectation. CSR is not only the right thing to do, it is increasingly becoming a powerful brand building tool.

Many businesses have seen that in the long term, CSR can not only enhance reputations but also have a positive impact on customer retention, employee engagement and employer brand. All of which will inevitably support the future success of a business.

In fact, the new generation of consumers have proven to show more loyalty to purpose-driven companies and in today’s cut-throat market, this can give businesses a competitive advantage. Research by the Corporate Board/EY Global Leadership Forecast suggested that purposeful companies outperform the stock market by 42%, proving that if you keep purpose at the forefront of your business strategy, profit will likely follow.

On the other hand, it is important to consider that there is a fine line between communicating brand values and merely exploiting a situation – CSR can’t just be used as a quick fix.

When thinking about a social responsibility strategy, authenticity is key.

We’ve experienced first-hand the power that an authentic CSR campaign can have, with many of the businesses we work alongside introducing innovative ways to help not only their employees and customers, but also those who are truly in-need within their communities.

Pivoting strategies

A recent report published by the Edelman Trust Barometer stated that 71 per cent of respondents agreed that if they perceive a brand to be putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever.

A business’ success hinges on its ability to adapt its marketing strategy and focus on making valuable contributions and not just selling. If products or services can help during difficult times like these, brands shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it for fear of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. If the product or service authentically adds value or is useful to customers, then now is the time to create a strategy to talk about it.

The same report highlighted that during this time people want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, with 90 per cent of respondents in agreement.

It’s time for businesses to prove that they put people before profits – just look at what happened to Sports Direct.

In the days following the government’s enforced lockdown, Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley announced that he would not be closing any Sports Direct branches as he felt he was offering an essential service.

It was also reported that the sports retailer increased the price of products that were in demand by up to 50% and that staff were told they would be immediately fired for self-isolating.

This approach of course created a huge amount of public backlash and Ashley was forced to close all stores and issue a public apology. Despite then announcing that they would be helping the NHS by delivering essential supplies, it appeared to be too little, too late, with YouGov reporting that the firm’s public perception took a serious hit.

The best brand responses

However, some brands are incredibly in-tune with their audience and customer bases, which is why in recent weeks, we’ve seen amazing responses from companies who have been able to quickly adapt their focus and implement initiatives that will make a tangible difference to the wider community.

Interestingly, the brands that have risen to the top of public awareness for their responses to the pandemic have one key thing in common – they all had strong CSR strategies in place prior to this pandemic.

The most successful CSR initiatives tell a company’s story, implement customer feedback, position the company as a leader on social issues and support communities – and this should be no different during a crisis.

From offering free services to protecting jobs or adapting processes, here we’ve pulled together some of our favourite examples of amazing CSR initiatives at the moment.

1. Morrisons

The supermarket chain has somewhat led the way for others in adapting to a world with COVID-19, introducing a number of forward-thinking initiatives for employees and suppliers. This includes offering guarantees on sick pay, prioritising and expanding home deliveries to those in need and committing to pay small suppliers faster to relieve the pressure on SMEs.

Morrisons have always aimed to be ahead of the curve when it comes to corporate responsibility and before COVID-19 their dedicated CSR team were working hard on a number of  initiatives, ranging from supporting British Farmers, to reducing single-use plastic in their stores and looking after their colleagues – they even won a UPS Sustainability Award in 2019.

2. HomeServe

Home assistance provider, HomeServe, has launched a brilliant campaign, offering free emergency home repairs to all NHS and social care workers during the lockdown period. We’re so proud to have worked alongside HomeServe on this campaign and it’s been incredibly rewarding to see the difference it has made to key workers lives.

HomeServe CEO Richard Harpin said: “We hope that by offering them free emergency repairs, we can show how grateful we are at this time of intense difficulty. While you look after us, we’ll look after your homes.”

HomeServe believe a successful business must also be a responsible one and over the past ten years they’ve implemented a number of initiatives that show their commitment to CSR. The most notable of which is their Customer First programme, a scheme established to allow HomeServe employees to raise customer issues that then need help resolving.

3. Unilever

To offer support to frontline workers, whilst also creating jobs for employees whose usual work had stopped, consumer-goods firm Unilever supplied care packages to staff at the NHS Nightingale hospital in London.

Unilever has a long history of CSR and they focus their strategy around helping a wide range of key stakeholders. This means initiatives that work to support the company’s consumers, employees, investors, suppliers and communities.

4. Timpsons

Despite closing its stores during the UK lockdown period, the renowned retailer has pledged to keep its 5,500 employees on full pay while it remains closed, ensuring that employees can have some financial peace of mind in the midst of such uncertainty.

Timpson’s has always taken a unique approach to CSR and this famously included offering unemployed people a free dry clean for suits if they had a job interview to go to. The family-run business is also known for giving employees opportunities to progress and has introduced a number of schemes that focus on improving employee engagement.

Life after lockdown

Whilst it’s admirable to see brands doing their bit, it will be interesting to see how many continue their CSR activity once this crisis has passed.

Understandably, upholding customer-focused operations and initiatives long-term is challenging and costly, however, effective CSR is always conducted over a long period of time. It will go beyond just giving back and will become a part of a brand’s purpose and values, which are then reflected in its reputation.

It’s clear that CSR strategies have the potential to help your business and community progress – but only if done well.

And if you’d like to learn more about how to activate your CSR commitments to best effect, then we’re always around for a video chat and a brew!

Picture of Alex Whiteside

Alex Whiteside

I have been working in digital marketing for the last four years, originally beginning in-house at an independent estate agent whilst completing my post graduate diploma in Digital Marketing and Data Analytics. I’ve worked with brands like Checkatrade, Eureka! and MBNA. Specialising in social media and influencer marketing, I love working collaboratively with clients on brand marketing – and I’m always nose deep in the latest social updates!

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