If you are new to this article series centered on Strategic Foresight, welcome aboard! Before reading on, I suggest checking out the first post (found here) so you’ll be up-to-speed on topic details and overall context.
Quick refresher for those following along: We recently conducted an internal project around “The Future of Customer Insights” – diving deep into pattern recognition and scenario planning. The goal was to expand our thought boundaries and shift our time horizon by considering how current trends might influence the future.
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing the 5 key topics that arose from our Strategic Foresight exercise.
Part 1 – Life From Home (Read Here)
Part 2 – Global Social Responsibility
Part 3 – Reputation Currency (Read Here)
Part 4 – New Rules of Engagement (Read Here)
Part 5 – Hyper-Personalization (Read Here)
Throughout this ongoing discussion, keep in mind that Strategic Foresight is not about predicting the future, but rather it is a structured approach to exploring possible future scenarios based on the information we have today.
In this article I will be discussing a trend that is certainly not new, but its impact on business and consumer behavior is continually evolving: Global Social Responsibility.
Let us start with a brief history lesson: The term Corporate Social Responsibility was officially coined in 1953 by Howard Bowen, an American economist, in his publication Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. However, it took a few more years for this concept to take hold.
In 1971, the Committee for Economic Development introduced the idea of a “social contract” between business and society. The notion was that businesses exist through public support, so there is inherently some obligation for businesses to make contributions for the betterment of society.
The Rise of Global Social Responsibility: Brands Make Things Personal
The show “Mad Men” does a great job highlighting the transition of marketing from transactional to personal. The development of brand identities and their being engrained in the daily lives of consumers shifted the relationship between the business sector and the public sector. In establishing a more personal connection through marketing and advertising, companies went from serving and supporting society to being woven within its very fabric.
This was a pivotal time because, whether companies knew it or not, building personal relationships with consumers was also building consumer expectations related to the brands’ role within society.
Jump forward to 2006, Time Magazine named “you” as its Person of the Year. This selection was inspired by the growing influence of user-generated content and its impact on how commercial industries operate. Taking a step back to consider this from a broader perspective, a somewhat algebraic relationship has been established: If brands equal their customers, and customers equal society, then brands equal society.
As we have seen over time, there are quantifiable benefits for brands who integrate themselves within the personal lives of its customers. From sales and revenue to ambassadorship and loyalty, there is a lot to gain from building personal relationships. That said, as brands capitalize on this approach, they must also be aware of the broader expectations related to life and society on a local and global scale.
The Effect of Global Social Responsibility: Purpose-Driven Business Model
Think of relationships between brands and consumers as a dinner party where the consumer is the host, and the guests are competing brands. Ultimately, the customer decides who to invite and how long the guests stay. If the brand is polite, enjoyable to be around, and offers value through their presence, their stay is likely to be extended. If the brand is intrusive, offensive, or destructive, their stay will likely be brief; and they might not be welcome back.
But having integrated themselves into the lives of consumers, brands are now cohosting dinner parties rather than attending as guests. They are expected to contribute, be of service, and act in coordination with their fellow cohosts. After all, this is the role brands built for themselves, so now it is up to them to fulfill their duties.
Switch back to the business world and consider the role brands play in the lives of consumers. They are no longer observers or supporters, they are players. In order to contribute, be of service, and act in coordination with their customers, there must be a strategic evolution that shifts focus away from profits and revenue to impact and involvement. Furthermore, the brand’s impact and involvement need to be aligned with the customers’ values and principles.
The result of this brand strategy evolution is a purpose-driven business model.
Data-driven consumer insight confirm that people want to support brands who stand for something meaningful, and they want to see that stance supported by action. The Edelman Trust Barometer found that 76% of consumers believe CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for the government to require it. A Cone Communications CSR Study found that 71% of U.S. millennials hope companies will take the lead on the social issues they find important, and over half would defend a purpose-driven company if people spoke badly of it.
Today, brands should be regularly engaging their customers to understand which causes and issues are most important, and which actions are likely to have the biggest impact. Directly communicating with the target audience not only removes the guesswork on the brand’s part, but it also shows customers their voices matter and conveys a sense of awareness that brands have a responsibility to make the world a better place.
The Future of Global Social Responsibility: Further Apart, Yet Closer Together
Technological advancements have led to a highly informed, passionately motivated, and strongly opinionated global society. As a result, the spectrum of causes and issues people choose to support is as wide as it is deep. American citizens are actively addressing human rights issues in China. People in Australia rally support for natural disaster relief in Haiti. There are no longer geographic or demographic boundaries on what, where, and why people support the causes they do.
This global interconnectivity presents both challenges AND solutions for companies who want to have a positive social impact. Due to resource limitations, it can be difficult to pinpoint which cause(s) to support and which action(s) to take. So, a focused and strategic approach is required to ensure these decisions are in authentic alignment with the target audience and the brand itself.
For brands looking to address global issues and connect with international communities, here are a few trends and strategic initiatives to explore:
Virtual Communities are one of the few positive outcomes that emerged during the global pandemic. Forced familiarity with video chat services like Zoom and FaceTime have changed the way people are willing and able to interact. The use of live stream features on YouTube and Facebook have become more strategically prominent as brands search for new ways to remain engaged with their audiences. While sparked by necessity, these channels are now embedded within society and will provide ongoing opportunities as the post-pandemic world continues to evolve.
Today, brands can access much larger audiences through video chats and live streams than they could have just a few years ago. With consumers accustomed to and comfortable with interactive digital experiences, two volunteer events happening on opposite sides of the world can be connected. Yes, this technical functionality has been accessible for a while now, but today it is more widespread and commonly used. So, the likelihood of consumers joining a virtual community is higher than it has ever been. As a result, the potential for a local brand to have a global impact is also higher than it has ever been.
Togetherness and people-first mentalities are proving to be increasingly valuable brand attributes. These have long been common phrases and buzzwords listed on company websites and written in mission statements, but the pandemic has drawn back the curtain exposing brands for what they truly are. Some talk the talk, others walk the walk, and as life moves forward there is high demand for transparency in this regard.
Brands that exude togetherness have flattened vertical hierarchies and established a level playing field on which all voices are equally valued. Togetherness is achieved when brands connect varied organizational branches with not only each other, but with consumer audiences and external stakeholders. By removing barriers and bridging communication gaps, the ability to collective achieve common goals is simplified and streamlined.
A people-first mentality must exist both internally and externally. Consumers want to support brands who make them feel valued, but they also want the employees of that brand to be valued as well. Only through organizational transparency will consumers see, feel, and trust what they are being told about a brands identity and people-first approach. This is often an uncomfortable transition for many brands who prefer separate internal and external identities, but that approach is quickly becoming obsolete.
Transitioning from For-Profit to For-Purpose is a necessary strategic adjustment as the world evolves. The nature of business will always be focused on achieving bottom-line objectives, that does not change. But the strategic adjustment is how businesses keep achieving their bottom-line objectives as consumer demand, market conditions, and society in general continually shift.
Consumers want to see for-profit companies take initiative and lead the way on global issues. They want to see the money they spend have a larger impact than lining the pockets of corporate entities. Furthermore, the non-profit sector has suffered recently as individuals and families struggle financially through the pandemic. While the for-profit sector has been impacted financially as well, consumers want their favorite brands to leverage their resources, influence, and standing within the community to – at the very least – keep a spotlight on the issues and causes they care about.
Final Thoughts & Action Items
I have said it before, and I will continue saying it throughout this article series: Strategic Foresight is NOT predicting the future. The objective is to explore possible future-world scenarios based on the information we have available today. Identify emerging trends that are shaping and influencing your business, market, and consumers. From there, expand your time horizons and consider what your business, market, and consumers might look like if those trends continue.
Looking specifically at Global Social Responsibility, we mapped its growth and development from the 1930’s to better understand how we arrived at our current point in time. As marketing tactics have blurred the relationship line between business and everyday life, consumers expect brands to act as if they are members of society rather than peripheral entities.
To meet consumer expectation around social responsibility moving forward, brands must first understand the specific causes, issues, and actions that resonate with their audience. Rather than taking a trial-and-error approach, the most effective and efficient way to build a socially responsible business that aligns with consumer values is to bring them into the process. Give them a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation regarding brand identity and business development. By actively listening to what consumers want, the best path forward will become clear. Then, it is up to the brand to ensure they walk the walk, rather than talk the talk.
Having established the brand identity and action plan, uncover secondary trends and opportunities that will drive community connection, engagement, and relationship building. Whether it is the emergence of video communication and live streaming or user generated content and employee empowerment, continue to pursue what is possible by leveraging what is available.
One last thing to keep in mind is the need for proof of impact. When a brand communicates their support for a cause or issue and positions itself as a conduit for global change, there needs to be a tangible result. People want to know exactly how their efforts and involvement has made a difference. This is more of an opportunity for brands than it is an obligation. Following through with intentions and promises is a key element of earning trust, but many brands can spark real, meaningful change and profoundly influence the world around them. Beyond achieving any business goals, we all feel good knowing we are making a difference.
For over 35 years, we’ve been refining our approach to engaging and listening to customers in ways that produce actionable insights and tangible results. The outcome of those efforts is empowering brands to be difference makers and leaders of change within our communities. We are proud and motivated to be part of your journey along the path to Global Social Responsibility. If you’re ready to launch into the world of Strategic Foresight, we’re ready to show you the way.