Versaic recently had a conversation with Susan McPherson, founder of McPherson Strategies, a consultancy focused on the intersection between brands and social good where she advises both corporations and growing nonprofits on how best to partner, build advocacy and drive visibility for their causes and initiatives. Susan is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Triple Pundit and Forbes and has 25+ years experience in marketing, public relations and sustainability communications. Prior to launching her consultancy, McPherson was a senior vice president at Fenton Communications and vice president, CSR services at PR Newswire.
McPherson was selected as a Vital Voices global corporate ambassador and was named as one of 40 Women to Watch Over 40, Fortune’s 55 Most Influential Women on Twitter, Elle Magazine’s Top 25 Women on Twitter and Fast Company’s 25 Smartest Women of Twitter.
Versaic: To begin, how would you define CSR?
Susan: CSR can be described in many different ways, but here’s one definition that I find covers it substantially.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a company’s initiatives and programs that assess and take responsibility for its effects on environmental, community and social wellbeing. CSR may also be called “corporate citizenship” and can involve incurring short-term costs that do not provide immediate financial gain to the company, but instead promote positive social, philanthropic and environmental change. CSR covers five main areas: environment, community, employee welfare & inclusion, financial performance and corporate governance.
Versaic: What is marketing’s role in driving a brand’s social and environmental sustainability impact?
Susan: To create and tell a single compelling story to all stakeholders (customers, shareholders, investors, partners, employees, the media). This works best for those companies in which responsibility is (already) a core company value and informs all aspects of the business. Marketing teams at a particular company can work closely with those in CSR to promote this story through its various channels such as earned and social media, employee newsletters, its web platforms and even good old-fashioned signage posted throughout the company.
Versaic: What advice do you have for brands about combining marketing and sustainability?
Susan: Start at the top! In a large corporation, it can be extremely valuable if the Chief Sustainability Officer and the Chief Marketing Officer are aligned, cooperating and working on joint deliverables. Examples of companies that are doing this NOW include BT, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nike. In smaller enterprises, it is helpful if the CSR director is regularly meeting with the director of marketing along with the communications manager.
Versaic: Overall, what are some of your favorite brands and why?
Susan: The companies that get it right are the ones that have an authentic desire to make the world a better place. CSR can have positive benefits for the bottom line, but if that’s your only motivation, customers will see right through it. CSR isn’t a marketing strategy, but it can certainly help a company in how it is viewed in the world. CSR is about having a real commitment to people, to the planet and to the communities in which your company operates.
Companies like Tiffany & Co., Warby Parker, Levi’s, Marks and Spencer, IKEA and Virgin are setting strong examples here, with in-depth, cohesive and high-impact CSR strategies that align authentically with their brands and products. Smart companies share their stories often and consistently and they are not afraid to admit when they don’t meet the goals originally established.
Versaic: How do you measure the success of a CSR program?
Susan: Many things!
- Focus on outcomes. The number of hours served, dollars contributed, and employees engaged are important to understand a company’s level of commitment to a cause. To understand the value of those investments however, it’s essential to examine the outcomes of your CSR projects—how a project changed the lives of community stakeholders, volunteers, and beneficiaries and helped create a better planet.
- Learn from others. One of the best ways to improve your impact measurement is by learning from others. Review the CSR reports of companies like Timberland, UPS, and Intel that have used measurement to improve the impact of their programs. There are also several publications and events, including Triple Pundit, 3BL, Conscious Magazine, Guardian Sustainable Business, FastCoExist, and#CSRChat, that focus on promoting knowledge and best practices between CSR leaders. It’s one of the best ways to refresh your process and see what you may be missing. If you can’t attend major conferences such as BSR’s annual event, Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, Sustainable Brands, Net Impact and the CECP Summit, review online. They often distribute summary blogs showcasing the sessions.
- Don’t undervalue stories. So often, companies can fall in the trap of thinking impact only gets communicated through numbers—percentages, hours, dollars, increases, decreases, etc. Sometimes impact can’t be quantified—and that’s okay. Stories and qualitative observations are just as important as data when it comes to communicating your impact. The way a worker’s entire life transforms when she is paid a fair wage is incredibly powerful—and it’s something that can best be communicated through her personal story. Your audiences want to hear these types of stories and those who are personally affected want to share.
- Create goals, review, assess and tweak… constantly. Pivot if necessary!
Versaic: How can companies truly differentiate themselves in how they communicate their CSR efforts?
Susan: I’m a huge advocate for the simple ASK. Survey your stakeholders and find out how they want to be kept informed—Do they prefer email? Would a weekly or monthly update work best? Or do they rely on your social channels to keep up to date? If you don’t ask, you are simply guessing and could be missing the boat entirely. Would they rather view a video than read an annual CSR report?
Versaic: What tips can you share with companies who would like to increase the impact of their CSR programs?
Susan: Be bold, be energetic, and look for opportunities to collaborate with other companies (even competitors) as well as NGOs. Share your good work as well as your not-so-good work and by all means involve your employees, customers and partners. Given the challenges we face in today’s world, it takes a village.