Proof of Purpose: The Future of CSR

Today's global business environment is a blur of stakeholder demands, increasing expectations and competitive hurdles. No longer a niche initiative, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has gone mainstream. And with the growth of CSR programs comes the rise of stakeholder expectations. According to the newly released 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker, 84 percent of Americans hold companies accountable for producing and communicating the results of CSR commitments. Purpose cannot stand alone - stakeholders demand proof of impact.

How do stakeholders and companies alike gauge whether CSR programs are proving purpose? As part of our new approach to CSR, Corporate Social Return(SM), Cone Communications developed the Four Rs of Return to not only guide how we work with our CSR clients, but also serve as a litmus test for any CSR campaign in the marketplace:

  • Relevant: Does it align with the company's mission/purpose?
  • Results-Oriented: Does it have measurable impact?
  • Resonate: Do these impacts matter to vested stakeholders?
  • Reliable: Does the company engage consistently around those impacts?


Marks & Spencer's Plan A is a best-in-class example of a company that is going beyond well-defined purpose to deliver real return for business, brand and society – and meeting the 4 Rs along the way. M&S is on a journey to become the "world's most sustainable major retailer," and it's making sure to consistently engage stakeholders, from employees to NGOs. The company has not only met its ambitious goal of carbon neutrality in its U.K. and Irish operations, it's also helping consumers reduce their own carbon footprints through programs like Wash at 30. Just this year, M&S announced to the world its plan to recycle as many items of clothing as it sells – 350 million items a year to be exact. The clear "buy one, give one" message comes through in the company's "Shwopping" campaign, in which consumers are encouraged to donate one item of unwanted clothing for each new purchase they make at M&S. The retailer's website proudly announces that since the launch of the campaign in April, consumers have already donated nearly 1 million items of clothing to give to nonprofit partner Oxfam. Through robust initiatives that are continuously shared with stakeholders, M&S is undoubtedly proving its purpose.

Of course, there are also CSR campaigns that leave room for improvement, and answers to the 4 Rs are hard to identify. Tic Tac recently released limited edition pink and white Strawberry Fields mints in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although the brand's Facebook page announces $100,000 will benefit nonprofit partner Cancer Care as part of the campaign, there is little else to show consumers how their individual purchases make a difference or even what portion of the proceeds from each purchase go to the cause. It's also unclear how the campaign ladders up to an overarching brand mission or consistent support of the breast cancer cause.

The writing is on the wall. While once purpose was enough, companies today must be able to not only produce and measure return for business, brand and society, but also communicate these benefits to vested stakeholders in clear and compelling ways. CSR is evolving, and those companies that are not able to convey diverse returns will find their campaigns – and their credibility – on the line. Don't just talk about purpose. Prove it.

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