CSR 2010: New Times; Old Challenges

by Aman Singh Das | January 03, 2011

  • My Vault

We are in an interesting time. Gone are the days when companies could expect consumers to simply believe what they are told. Now companies must make sure they're telling the whole truth lest they risk the wrath of the 24-hour news cycle and the tentacles of the social web.

But that's a good thing, right?

Honesty is good, right?

Yes, absolutely. But when you are communicating a company's "good work" in this new paradigm, honesty might not be enough. You also need to communicate messages that are authentic to your brand, rise above the noise, and are timely and also interesting.

Being honest isn't even as easy as it should be. Particularly with phrases like "green" and "sustainability" becoming part of the regular marketing vernacular, cutting through the clutter has become more difficult for marketers and consumers alike.

In fact, a 2008 study by Cone LLC showed that only 47 percent of Americans trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging. The onus, therefore, is on the consumer to distinguish who's making truthful claims from companies that are simply green-washing or paying lip-service to CSR.

The FTC's new marketing guidelines are an effort to address this problem. However, with the added burden on the consumer comes the risk of over-informing them to the point that they simply ignore the "green" claims and revert to more basic reasons for making purchases.

Are we reaching a tipping point where "green" now means as much as "new and improved"? Has it become an expectation that brands make their product AND make the world better in the process? If so, should we be celebrating or lamenting these questions?

I look at these questions as "good problems." I am fortunate to be part of a company that has been acting and leading as a socially responsible company long before the term was even coined. Where terms such as "sustainability," "employee-engagement," and "inclusiveness" are not considered buzz-words but parts of our corporate DNA.

I work at a company where the conversation isn't IF we should care about making the world a better place but questions like "what does our best look like" and "how do we get there faster."

In all honesty, at Herman Miller, "building a better world around you" doesn't sound like an overly ambitious goal.

And you don't have to take my word. We're not in business to win awards, but we've been recognized by many over the years, including Fortune's Top 100 Companies to Work For, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and a top corporate citizen in Corporate Responsibility Magazine, among others.

You might ask then, "Herman Miller is already doing a lot of the hard work, so what's the problem?"

It's not so much a problem, as much a challenge of engagement. It's the problem I described earlier; the challenge of communicating. For sure, the PR world has been grappling with how brands can talk about all of the good things they do without putting audiences off or sounding like grand-standing blowhards. This is not a new challenge.

But it has become increasingly complex as more companies purposefully try to integrate CSR into their business models and as communications channels evolve into dialogues rather than one-sided messaging.

Social media, for example, instantly gives consumers an easy media and a quick opportunity to engage.

The onus then shifts to us as brand ambassadors to keep our consumers engaged, not just informed. And I'm grateful to have these problems because I’m fortunate that the main challenges are our communication and NOT the substance behind what we're communicating.

--By John Kim

John is the Better World marketing manager with Herman Miller, a leading manufacturer of furniture, known for its innovative culture and business model. John's title brings a smile to his face every day as he's obsessed with the idea that business can truly do good in the world.

Related Reading:

The Path Less Traveled…How I Became a Better World Marketing Manager

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CSR 2010, Part IV: Corporate Social Responsibility Shifts From Cubicle to Boardroom

CSR 2010, Part III: Don't Let Your Job Search Define You

CSR 2010, Part II: Emerging Career Choices in Supply Chain & Sustainability

CSR 2010, Part I: The Sudden Explosion of Commentary on Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR 2010: Lasting Impressions From a Volatile Year

Filed Under: CSR

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