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Why brands must move from social responsibility to social accountability

11th Aug 2013
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Given the current turbulent business environment, brands must achieve high levels of customer engagement if they are to stay ahead of the competition. It’s now paramount for brands to consistently demonstrate a greater purpose and moral imperative. This means showing a commitment to the wider values of their business, not for financial betterment but the good of society as a whole. This has become a powerful way from brands to develop a ‘real’ and longstanding relationship with their audience and reflect values they admire.

Reports in the media about UK tax avoidance and the horsemeat scandal have wreaked havoc with consumer trust portraying companies whose sole interest appears to be money-making at the expense of the consumer. When customers are able to switch allegiances at the blink of an eye, one minor error can be costly. To ensure success businesses must come up with compelling ways to drive social, as well as monetary value, to meet growing consumer expectations.

Some businesses are already developing ways to build relationships with customers at a regional level. A great example of this is Asda, which in collaboration with the RSA will be trialling a new scheme aimed at making excess store space available to the local community. This came about through more people choosing to shop online and the resulting wastage of store space.

Asda plans to offer the space up to local authorities, small businesses, voluntary groups and education services. By placing itself at the centre of the community, the retailer can look to build a bond with regional groups rather than its customer base as a whole. Through demonstrating an interest in a select area, the company is able to position each store as a separate entity, rather than a large faceless corporation. Getting involved positively in local issues such as education brings the retailer closer to each group of customers and addresses issues which directly affect the families who shop at the store.

Social actions platform

Brands don’t have to stop at CSR on just a regional level and can actually address wider issues affecting different facets of society too. This is the case with O2, which is seeking to deliver real social value across the UK through its Go Think Big campaign. Aimed at solving the problem of youth unemployment, the campaign involved the creation of a social actions platform that provides young people with a go-to place for career inspiration, insider information and advice.

What’s special about the campaign is the realisation that a young audience wants more than just free tickets and queue jumps, an insight into the actual issues facing young Britons. By identifying this, the company has been able to set objectives to achieve a resolution. This campaign demonstrates a far greater understanding of a core audience and O2 is able to position itself as a brand that identifies with its customers and gives something valuable back.

Unilever’s top marketer Keith Weed recently argued that companies must move from the mind-set of “social responsibility” to “social accountability”. It’s no longer enough for businesses to see social responsibility as an add-on and something to be incorporated by choice. Now, it’s become a necessity for a business to foster a commitment to improving society and is an expectation held by the consumer.

Businesses such as Asda stand as an example of how retail models can be adapted to benefit the local community, while also adding value to the brand. Another example is Toms Shoes, which built its entire business on social responsibility and has become hugely successful in doing so. The company offers a scheme that means for every pair of shoes bought another will be donated to a person in need, enabling customers to feel they are giving back to the world by choosing to purchase through Toms Shoes. Even more effective is how the act of buying a shoe from the company becomes a collaboration between brand and customer, working together to bring about real social change.

Today’s customers are looking for human values in the brands they admire. This means brands need show understanding into the issues that matter to their audience. If that’s youth unemployment or the welfare of people in the third world, this insight is invaluable to businesses and can foster a far deeper engagement if used effectively.

More than just a genuine understanding, brands now need to show empathy, transparency and a social responsibility that is uncontrived. As the expectations placed on businesses grow its becoming necessary for brands to rethink their business models to ensure the values of their customers are reflected. 

Ian Stockley is MD of Indicia.

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