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Thursday
Oct232008

Corporate Social Responsibility - Genuine or Generous?

As a part of my model of customer forces (imagine the Porter Five Forces sweater turned inside-out), I hang corporate social responsibility on the hook of the customer's process of reflecting on a company's values.


The idea is that CSR programs make a statement about a company's values, and that these values can generate an emotional bond with prospects and customers. But the cynical company will develop a CSR program (if they develop one at all) that is just for show. That dog won't hunt. The phrase I heard recently is that CSR should be genuine, not generous. 

For me, that means two things. First, the program should REALLY indicate the company's values, and the company's values should be reinforced internally around a principled CSR program. Second, the program should focus on impact in a nuanced, measurable way. Whereas a company's marketing program should strive for consistency and simplicity in its messaging, its CSR program should respond to the non-commercial needs of the world in a sophisticated way. This is because a customer's expectation of a company's CSR program is set by how the company is performing tasks that a government, or non-profit, would perform them. It's a policy filter, a program filter -- not a marketing filter. 

We're OK with the one-two punch simplicity of Apple's Mac vs PC ads. We won't be OK with Apple simply removing certain chemicals from its products. That's a step in the right direction. But add in their recycling program, you're starting to get the sense that Apple is thinking this through. If Apple were to add additional "green" practices, and to support other "green" initiates even if they don't control them, people would believe in the genuineness of Apple's commitment.

I think a consequence of this analysis is that companies should actually consider tackling complex, hairy problems in their CSR programs. This may fly in the face of compartmentalizing CSR and coming up with simple measures guaranteed to succeed. Even Apple, which I believe is indeed sincere about its green policies, likes to show checklists of things it has accomplished. But the worries that face customers are often complex, multivariate problems. A simple scorecard won't work. And these worries are well-founded.

A beautiful example is the problem of honeybees. They don't just make honey, they pollinate up to a quarter of the world's vegetable, fruit and nut food supply. They make up a critical part of an ecosystem that has sentimental, practical and economic impact. 

They are also probably going to be extinct in 10 years or so, at least in Britain. 

Just as some companies are too big to fail (to use the parlance justifying the current financial bailout program in the US), some insect ecosystems are just too important to fail.

And to fix that sticky problem, who's going to take the lead? Is it a multinational governmental problem? 

Or do global companies have a role to play?

Time for some corporate social responsibility where it really matters, and where we really need it: On the hard, messy, non-linear, hard-to-measure problems. 


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