Show Me the Impact: 5 Ways to Close the Perception Gap

This article was published on CSRwire Talkback on September 30, 2013.

Part of the Consumer Perspectives: Turning Insights into Action series

Ever since cause marketing broke onto the scene in the early 1980s, corporations have realized and embraced the brand-building power of supporting social and environmental issues, from breast cancer research to recycling.

When companies rally behind causes, consumers respond with increased trust, loyalty and purchase likelihood. With this passion also come increasing consumer expectations for brands to become driving forces in helping solve myriad issues. As marketing messages of a higher purpose and commitment abound, consumers today are taking a closer look at the plethora of corporate efforts, wondering, “Where’s the impact?”

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, companies donated $5 billion to charities in 2012. Overall corporate giving – including cash and in-kind – totaled nearly $19 billion. That’s roughly $52 million every day. Despite such staggeringly high contributions, consumers are skeptical about their efficacy. According to the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study, less than a quarter (22 percent) of global consumers feel companies have made a significant constructive impact on social and environmental issues.

And the uncertainty isn’t limited to corporations.

Despite a near-universal feeling of responsibility to buy with a conscience, global consumers are also unsure of their own ability to make traction toward issues. Nearly nine in 10 shoppers (88 percent) feel a responsibility to purchase products they think are environmentally and socially responsible, but just over a quarter of global consumers (27 percent) think they have any kind of significant impact through those purchases.

For marketers, this signals a massive red flag – consumers’ hearts appear to be in the right place, but if they’re unsure of their potential to effect change, they may well move on to brands that help them understand how and why their purchases matter.

Certainly progress toward solving societal ills has been made, and in large part thanks to the contributions of corporations and consumer activations that fund critical activities such as research, logistics and education. But the glaring gap between what companies and individual consumers are actually doing, and how consumers perceive the value of those efforts raises the flag on a tremendous miss – and opportunity – for CSR practitioners.

It’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. If consumers don’t grasp the impact of CSR efforts, are they really valuable?

Turning Insights into Action: Closing the Impact Perception Gap

Closing the impact perception gap is a must-do, both critical and urgent to the success of corporate social responsibility efforts and the very issues they strive to remedy. The risk of losing consumer engagement merely scratches the surface. Longer-term reputational damage – including loss of trust and affinity – may result if consumers feel companies fail to live up to their promises. And on the highest order, what progress has been made toward solving those pressing issues will slow or even come to a halt.

Designing CSR programs to go beyond purpose and focus on proof of progress is essential. Here are some guidelines around constructing and communicating CSR for greatest impact:

1. Focus on an issue material to your business.

If your company is in the process of creating a CSR program, focus on an issue that is material to your business or industry. Doing so will allow you to best leverage the full suite of your assets, from operations and intellectual capital, to contributions and philanthropy.

2. Choose your partners wisely.

Seek out activation partners, including NGOs and nonprofits, that can not only deliver the services you’ve identified as your contribution to the solution, but can and will consistently report back on progress. Their on-the-ground services and abilities to report in real-time are the backbone of your credibility.

3. Track your progress every step of the way.

Establish key performance indicators and measurements at the outset to ensure your activations are tracking toward your objectives. Set your bold goal, but also flag important milestones along the journey as evidence of making headway. Constantly check your CSR program against these measurements – and reconsider your approach if progress isn’t being made.

4. Ensure your stakeholders have a job to do.

Consider your stakeholders, from employees to consumers, as partners, not constituents to engage at the tail end of your program. Give them an opportunity to meaningfully work with you, contributing not only their time and dollars but also ideas, passion and personal networks.

5. Communicate your program and progress in relevant terms.

Things like zero-emissions factories are undeniably good but what do they mean for consumers? Make issues digestible and specific, as well as personally relevant to your stakeholders to strengthen their resolve to support your efforts.

Looking for inspiration?

U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer is working hard to ensure its consumers understand the individual and collective impacts of its CSR program Plan A. With smart partnerships, dynamic stakeholder engagement, and ongoing proof of progress, Marks & Spencer is not only taking real steps toward its goal to become the world’s most sustainable retailer – it is helping its consumers understand how they and the company can work together to address real and urgent issues, from climate change to public health.

About the Author: As Cone CommunicationsResearch & Insights senior insights supervisor, Sarah Cahan drives the creation and execution of industry-leading corporate social responsibility research and analysis, including the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study and the 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker. Her team produces the award-winning Prove Your Purpose CSR newsletter and blog, which offer cutting-edge trends and real-world best practices to hundreds of Fortune 500 and nonprofit executives every week. With nearly a decade of communications and CSR experience, Sarah brings forward-thinking consumer insights and corporate implications to life for clients and thought leaders alike.

Read the article on CSRWire Talkback.

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