6 Key Considerations for Socially Responsible Marketing

Forward-thinking organizations are leveraging messages that showcase their socially responsible initiatives. But as experts warn, they have to make sure to practice what they preach.

Being socially responsible is crucial for organizations that want to gain customers' trust and retain a loyal customer base. And savvy organizations have realized that aside from doing the socially responsible thing, they also need to make sure they advertise it.

This realization has led to many companies engaging in responsible marketing, making sure that customers and prospects are well aware of the brand's social values and how these are ingrained in every fiber of the organization.

However, in the age of extreme transparency, organizations had better practice what they preach and not try to deceive customers with messages that aren't true. As Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D. argue in their book Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage, trust is not just a good idea, it's inevitable.

Wilson Raj, global customer intelligence director at SAS, agrees. "Trust is the key," he stresses. Therefore, marketing messages shouldn't just pay lip service to their marketing messages. Instead, they have to practice what they preach or risk doing more harm than good and lose their customers' trust. "Make sure that your products, services, or offerings really do what you say they do or you'll have problems," Raj says. For example, an organization that claims to manufacture eco friendly products needs to adopt environmentally focused practices even within its own headquarters.

Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, uses the example of The Body Shop as the epitome of an organization that leverages socially responsible messaging in a trustworthy manner. "[Founder] Anita Roddick didn't just use socially responsible messages, but looked at the entire production chain and made sure these messages were reflected within the organization," he notes. "By understanding the whole chain, she developed a message with a mission."

Further, The Body Shop championed the causes it believed in rather than using them solely for marketing purposes. One of the brand's core values is an opposition to animal testing and in the 1980s the brand sponsored Greenpeace posters promoting a petition against animal testing, that collected more than 4 million signatures. However, this was not just a way for The Body Shop to get marketing mileage. Instead, Joachimsthaler notes that Roddick really tried to live by the values she was preaching and integrate them within every element of the company. "When she was criticized because not everything was perfect, she was genuinely distraught," he notes.

So how can other organizations successfully deliver the same socially responsible marketing as The Body Shop? Experts share the following tips:

      1. Choose the right message: Different customers care about different things and it's a company's role to understand the messages that resonate best with their consumers. This makes it essential for organizations to leverage data to better determine their customers' priorities and make sure that their messages capitalize on those concepts. "You need to make sure that the message resonates with the customer segment," stresses Raj.

          2. Be transparent: Today's customers have several avenues through which to get information and rarely does anything remain a secret for long. Therefore, organizations need to make sure they are totally open about their practices and how these reflect their values. Thus, if a company is not eco friendly, it should not try to give the impression that it is simply because it's harping about climate change to attract new customers. On the other hand, if they are doing something right, companies should make sure they promote it. Starbucks, for example, outlines its recycling and waste reduction goals and practices. Graham Cooke, CEO of Qubit uses the example of Given Goods, which matches customers' purchases with similar ones donated to an impoverished part of the world. A map on the company's website updates in real time to show customers where the purchase is going to.

              3. Ensure the whole company understands the value of the message: Customers are astute and will realize if an organization is using socially responsible messages solely for financial gain. It is therefore imperative that every part of the company lives by the values that the brand is marketing. Raj notes that many organizations put a lot of effort on the marketing messages they deliver but beyond that don't look at the operational aspect of making those messages work. Often, companies will find hurdles when it comes to ingraining a value throughout the organization and is pushed to cut corners in order to reduce costs.

                4. Institute a culture change: This is really a case of needing to make sure you practice what you preach. "There needs to be a companywide commitment to do the right thing," Raj says. Joachimsthaler notes that many times social marketing efforts, while well intentioned, don't get traction because the organization doesn't take them seriously enough. He stresses the need to have someone with legitimate power in the organization leading the project, allowing him or her to institute all the necessary changes throughout the firm.

                  5. Let the message transcend channels: Graham Cooke, CEO of Qubit, notes that organizations need to make sure their socially responsible messages are the same on all channels. "You need to focus on what you want your brand to be about regardless of the channel or the platform," he notes. Organizations need to be especially careful that they're not sending conflicting messages over different channels, for example pushing a value on Facebook but saying something completely opposite on Twitter.

                    6. Embed social responsible ideas within the company strategy: Organizations shouldn't look at socially responsible policies as just a way to gain market share. Instead, they need to believe in them enough to want to live them in their daily lives. Joachimsthaler notes that organizations should embed these policies within the company's overall strategy so that they become part of the fiber of the firm and aren't easily forgotten when the company no longer needs the added marketing edge.

                      Most importantly, business leaders need to be committed to being socially responsible and involved in making sure that the whole company is incentivized in acting accordingly. As Cooke stresses, organizations shouldn't try to extract quick benefits by saying the right thing when they aren't doing the right thing.

                      EXPERT OPINION
                      EXPERT OPINION