There should be no grey in green

Ahmad Itani, CEO of Cicero & Bernay, says CSR is evolving, and smart brands can keep up regardless of what they do or sell.

As PR practitioners, we are often asked by clients and the media alike if there is such a thing as ‘genuine CSR’. In the ever-changing world we live in, corporate social responsibility is often believed to be nothing but a means to tick a box in the compliance section of a company, or a propaganda tool for it. I disagree.

History is rife with examples of great brands that created great legacies for themselves via genuine CSR practices. A hundred years ago, Cadbury, the famed chocolate company, invested its profits in social gains – it was not called CSR then – as did the 19th-century steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, whose business ethos was to “to do well in order to do good”.

In the mid-1990s, a lot of CSR gained momentum as a means of reputation-laundering. As economist Milton Friedman as famously quoted as saying in 1970: “The doctrine of social responsibility is frequently a cloak for actions that are justified on other grounds rather than a reason for those actions.” Then came the era of contemporary CSR as we know it today, from the ‘GE Foundation’ to ‘3Mgives’ to Ben & Jerry’s, which allocates 7.5 per cent of its pre-tax annual profits to CSR. But what about brands that sell products perceived as ‘harmful’? Brands that sell cigarettes, high carbon emitting products, or fast food? How can they approach a noble cause and not be seen as hypocritical? The answer lies in the way we approach CSR.

The need for CSR stems from entrepreneurial altruism. Over time, the many levels of CSR have ranged from passion projects by CEOs to corporate philanthropy, and long-term partnerships initiated for good. However, what has changed today is the way consumers regard CSR. We now focus on sub-specialisms within the realm of CSR, and one of the key new-age shifts is the introduction of human social responsibility – HSR – that stresses the growing importance of needing to focus on the individual.

This is especially relevant today because of the growing millennial population. By focusing on individuals as singular beings, rather than the more traditional communities as a whole, brands can inculcate a personalised touch to their causes, evident in the way brands such as Nike and IBM are approaching their CSR.

A recent survey by Nielsen showed that 73 per cent of millennials are willing to pay more for products from companies that support causes they can identify with. This figure is reached not just via CSR campaigns but also with the great help of peer-to-peer, word-of-mouth amplification. The figure is expected to grow further as today’s impulse-driven ‘Gen Z’ become tomorrow’s loyal consumers. What is also worthy of note is this generation is not naïve; they are growing up in a world in constant disruption. Gone are the days when consumers judged brands on brand spin alone. This brings me back to the question of CSR by ‘sin industries’ – tobacco, alcohol, junk food, etc.

Take cigarettes, for example. No amount of gory imagery is going to result in a drastic drop in sales. However, today’s customer is savvy enough to differentiate between CSR for compliance’s sake and something genuine. When Marlboro offered to donate a percentage of its profits towards conservation efforts for the protection of threatened species, or when McDonald’s launched the ‘Ronald McDonald House Charities’, those that participated with them did not do so out of respect for the brands but out of respect for the causes. This is what differentiated Philip Morris’ ‘Tobacco is Whacko’ – a complete failure – from the same brand’s successful ‘PM21 initiative’. The same can be said to be the differentiator between Pepsi’s failed ‘Next’ initiative and their very successful ‘Refresh Project’. These cases, I feel, highlight the best way forward for brands that are in this difficult space between noble intentions and harmful products.

Another key change in today’s CSR approach is corporate social action (CSA). CSA is something that “minimises the negative impact of business on society, increases the level of convergence between business and societal interests, and encourages corporate action that takes into account the needs of society and the environment.” We live in the era of ‘now’, and people no longer wish to wait decades for demonstrable change. CSA is not about manifestos; it is about actions. While global companies such as Lego, Microsoft and Google feature in social responsibility reputation charts, one of the top legacy brands that comes to my mind when it comes to CSA is Brand Dubai.

Dubai is proving exemplary, perhaps beyond Dubai 10X. This is further accentuated by the recent decree that not only incentivises social responsibility but also adds innovations such as smart platforms and social responsibility funds that aim to tap into individual initiatives for the collective good. From the humble ‘Ramadan Fridges’ initiative to mega projects like the ‘Year of Giving’, Brand Dubai has proven that legacies are built not on one-offs, but on sustained sustainability.

Not just of thoughts but of action. You and I are as much part of it as the brands we represent.

When collective good is the end goal there can only be one black and white answer to the question of green: intentions matter, actions count.