Over the years, consumers have taken a more active role in seeking out brands that demonstrate a little corporate social responsibility (CSR). Propelled at least in part by increased access to information in the digital age, today’s customers—and, in particular, millennials—see themselves as carrying influence in the form of their wallet.
This sense of consumer influence has been rewarded by marketing departments that have jumped on ethical branding opportunities to curry favor with their target audience. All together, these forces have come together in a global tornado of CSR campaigns, with consumers more determined than ever to give their business to companies doing good in the world and with brands hell-bent on showing why they deserve that support.
As recently as 2015, up to 81 percent of consumers said that they would make personal sacrifices to support brands supporting social and environmental change, according to Cone Communications. That sacrifice could come in the form of paying higher prices, accepting limited availability and longer shipping times, or foregoing other conveniences offered by brands that don’t concern themselves with driving change in the world. By and large, brands of all shapes and sizes—from soft-drink makers to shoe manufacturers, coffee shops to baby products lines—have worked to create strategies that satisfy this consumer demand.
From a marketing perspective, the ethical branding opportunity is one that’s hard to ignore, especially when consumer spending habits are getting more selective. But these efforts are bumping up against a big problem for the future of CSR campaigns: Consumers are beginning to show signs of fatigue.
In general, the larger consumer population’s growing wariness of ethical branding can be boiled down to three key factors.
For starters, they are increasingly worried about brands misleading or outright deceiving them. It only takes a few bad apples to ruin the fun for everyone, and every time a once-trustworthy brand betrays the faith of its customer base, it puts everyone else on alert for other so-called ethical brands that might be hiding unsavory business practices behind the facade of corporate responsibility.
One notable example is the waves of controversy that have hit Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company. After making promises to be an ethical, chemical-safe brand specializing in a range of household products, the company has had to battle a number of embarrassing setbacks. One of the more notable face-plants came when the company was found selling products containing a chemical it had promised not to use. In this particular case, it doesn’t help that the company’s PR flaps fly in the face of the claims of honesty reflected in the company’s very name. With their customer base feeling fooled, the brand has since struggled to reclaim its reputation as an ethical brand.
Image attribution: The Co-op Group
Another challenge of CSR: Some brands make terrible decisions in attempting to build a campaign. Look no further than Starbucks’ half-baked “Race Together” campaign, which plastered its logo across the company’s disposable cups and encouraged its workers and customers to have engaging, honest conversations about issues of race. Consumers revolted, seeing this as a naked attempt to use a social issue for promotional purposes, but it was also the sort of short-sighted business move that sounds good in the sterility of an executive board room but explodes upon launch.
The Starbucks situation was made even worse by its obvious efforts to serve as a brand marketing campaign. This wasn’t a quiet movement the company attempted to run for the greater social good: It became a massive branding and promotional tool designed to generate news buzz and grab consumer attentions across the country. There wasn’t much subtlety to the move, which lends itself to the third key challenge faced by CSR campaigns: Consumers are already sensitive to marketing in general, and they’re especially sensitive to overmarketing of ethical branding. Even if CSR is one of your best assets, it’s crucial to be careful in how you self-promote. Overplaying your hand is the most reliable way to squander whatever opportunity you may have.
The minefield of potential threats begs the question: Is consumer aversion to CSR so intense that brands should avoid this strategy completely?
While it remains a somewhat risky venture, most brands would argue that CSR is still an important marketing strategy, for one main reason: Even as consumers say they hate marketing that self-promotes their ethical responsibility, they simultaneously seek out brands that do exactly that. It might not be a fair circumstance, but it’s the one consumers have created, and brands have no choice but to try to meet their demands.
Image attribution: REL Waldman
How, exactly, can a company achieve this? As Digiday points out, the simplest solution may be to ease up on the throttle and lighten your marketing approach. Focus more on the cause and less on the marketing. Don’t do what Starbucks did and place stickers on every item you sell. Instead, seek out savvier methods of pairing your brand with its social responsibility efforts. Create rich, engaging content that highlights stories relevant to the issues your company cares about. Develop partnerships with nonprofits and other organizations, and focus on generating results. Consider how PR services and news might be able to indirectly generate attention for these efforts, instead of using your own content to directly trumpet your own ethical superiority.
Most consumers love a company that shows a little CSR. Just don’t force the issue too much. As long as you keep the focus on being authentic and sincere in your CSR efforts, you should be able to find that ideal balance to serve the greater good, your customers, and your marketing goals.
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Featured image attribution: Warren Wong