Who owns corporate social responsibility? Is it the CMO? PR? Does it fall on HR? Or does it live on its own? While this varies from company to company, I think a brand has to be really careful if its community outreach lives within the marketing department. Because when that happens, success depends on standard marketing metrics —the number of email addresses submitted, the amount of traffic to the website, leads generated, etc. This focus on marketing metrics fails to answer the most important questions, such as: Did your company’s involvement influence progress, improve lives, or foster social change?
The Causewashing Dilemma
I started thinking about this more seriously after a South by Southwest session that compared “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing” to causewashing. (Greenwashing refers to the proliferation of products marketing themselves as “green” or “natural,” while pinkwashing refers to the inundation of products claiming to benefit breast cancer research.)
Are both of these causes super important and worthy of our attention? Absolutely! But should we big-hearted consumers trust at face value that our dollars are being spent as virtuously as we’re led to believe by a marketing campaign? Probably not. A sad reality is that in most cases when we buy a product adorning a pink ribbon and claiming to benefit cancer research, a very, very small portion of those dollars actually find their way to the research lab.
The takeover of grocery and retail shelves by green and/or pink products is actually harmful. If every brand indicates on the surface level that it’s doing good or giving back, doesn’t it drastically reduce the impact? Doesn’t it give way for consumers to become desensitized to these very important causes—perhaps to the extent that we cease to care so much about finding legitimate ways to donate?
That’s why I think we need more awareness around “causewashing” —and that has to start with the brands being more responsible with their motivations.
Checking Your Motivations
For a brand truly committed to CSR, the challenge is not as easy as slapping a logo on its packaging or writing a small check, but demonstrating that it is really going all-in on a given cause because it is the right and altruistic thing to do. The motivation should move beyond any ancillary business benefit into a true alignment with a core set of values. But, if a business is going to invest dollars into cause marketing, how do they demonstrate impact? If it lives with the marketing or PR departments, marketing/awareness-type metrics will be the measuring stick. But, does that truly demonstrate impact?
Among the participants on the SXSW panel was Lane Bryant CMO Brian Beitler. In 2015, Lane Bryant—a retail fashion brand for plus size women—launched a social media and marketing campaign called #ImNoAngel that was basically a response to Victoria’s Secret’s angel campaign.
No one in the real world actually looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, so in response, Lane Bryan’s social media campaign — including a content partnership with Refinery29—celebrated real women’s real bodies in real clothes. It was a huge success. Of course the company benefited from the campaign financially, but the heartbeat of the campaign was a genuine effort to fight body shaming.
Developing New Community Outreach Metrics
While increased clicks, leads, or sales shouldn’t be the only goal of a CSR campaign, that doesn’t mean you should forego the metrics altogether. By adjusting your metrics to focus on impact in addition to more traditional marketing/PR/communication metrics, you can continue to measure impact on the community, as well as impact on your bottom line—ensuring the desire to truly do good isn’t being hijacked by sales-driven metrics.
Here are just a few examples of non-financial metrics to track for your community outreach campaign:
Number of Individuals Served
If you’re brand new to measuring impact, this is an easy place to start. How many individuals received direct support from your campaign?
As you set goals for this metric, don’t let ambitions get the best of you. Depending on your campaign, a lower number of people served may actually be better. For example, awarding five scholarships for $10,000 each will create much more long-term impact than five hundred scholarships for only $100 per recipient.
Quantity and Quality of Media
If, as with Lane Bryant’s campaign, your goal is increased awareness for a particular cause or social issue, it may be worthwhile to measure the quantity and prioritize mentions of the issue you’re supporting—not just your brand name.
Unless you run a nonprofit or a specific social enterprise, your team will likely never be the reigning expert on any one social issue or cause. Instead of flying solo, how could you partner with existing organizations in the work they’re already doing?
Focusing on the quality of partnerships developed with existing organizations is a great way to set your business on the right track to create lasting positive effects for the communities you serve.
Shifts in Social Change
Are you seeing specific social changes arise as a result of your efforts? I love this overview from the Dallas Women’s Foundation as a breakdown of specific, measurable indicators of social change. Whether on the micro or the macro level, tracking these indicators of specific changes driven by your campaign puts the focus on the community being served.
Long-Term Chain of Impact
Because the metrics surrounding social responsibility are so nebulous, it’s easy for brands to get sidetracked into measuring the input of investment (such as dollars pledged, hours volunteered, etc.) instead of output. To avoid this, social entrepreneurs recommend adjusting your focus to the long-term chain of impact. How have your efforts changed the level of unmet need in the community you are serving?
Does your community outreach campaign actually make a community impact? Or is it more concerned with sales and clicks? It doesn’t have to be either/or. But,the more your brand’s campaign can embrace a genuinely altruistic motivation, the more everyone will benefit! After all, when you give more, you grow more.