I believe we have entered a new era of CSR communications where using conventional advertising to convince consumers of the environmental and social benefits of corporations and brands is ineffective and irresponsible.
A number of factors are contributing to the end of CSR advertising: consumers simply don’t believe what they’re being told. This is well documented by the most recent results of the Edelman Trust Barometerthat revealed public trust in corporations fell to 38% from 58% last year; it’s expensive and most corporations can’t justify the cost full page newspaper ads about their commitment to CSR at a time when they are axing jobs; the profitability of ad agencies is largely related to the commissions they get from purchasing ad space on behalf of their clients – it’s no surprise that agencies recommend CSR advertising to their clients (sorry to my friends in the ad business); and advertising is a one way communication that is antethetical to the new world order that places the highest priority on transparency, dialogue, and collaboration. For me, nothing epitomizes this more than the Citizen’s Briefing Book, a project that has enabled everyday Americans to share their expertise and insight with President Obama.
However, there’s a paradox here. On the on hand, advertising CSR doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate. On the other hand, communicating the social and environmental values of corporations and brands is more important than ever. What to do? Here are a few thoughts:
The power of experiences: Wherever possible it’s better to have an event where people can act and react. This is profoundly more meaningful and effective than one way “command and control” communcation.
The need for authenicity: As mentioned above, neither consumers nor employees trust corporations as much as they used to. I suspect that they are even more skeptical of corporations that claim to be socially and environmentally responsible. This is why partnerships with non-profits are so important. Non-profits provide credibility that goes a long way to increasing trust.
The shift from consumers to contributors: Today, corporations need to give employees and constomers the opportunity to help define who they are, what they do, and why they matter. I think this applies to all aspects to of business – but the area of CSR seems particularly ripe for more participation and input from stakeholders.
Recently, I’ve seen some remarkable new thinking about communications. One great example is a new company called Collectivitythat helps corporations tap into the stories of the people that matter most to them. These stories illuminate aspects of a company’s business that are meaningful to employees and consumers and help to increase engagement in a way that wouldn’t be possible through conventional adversting. Collectivity’s founders, Joel Sears and Mariana Grezova are veterans of the advertising and design world who now believe it is their responsibility to uncover human stories and create a captivating way of communicating them for their clients.
As always, I welcome your comments and contributions.