Article | Which Comes First: The Brand or the Customer Experience?

Social Responsibility as a Selling Point

As individuals become inspired to embrace social issues they are passionate about, a growing number of brands are doing the same—and boasting improved customer relationships, employee morale, and bottom lines as results.

Brand executives who have championed social issues say that doing so is about more than merely “doing the right thing,” though that is a key motivator. Paying attention to issues that matter to their stakeholders allows brands to connect more deeply with consumers and better attract top talent to their workforce, they say.

Gender equality, paid leave for new parents, the environment: These issues may seem like they have little to do with how a business operates day to day, on the surface. But in today’s reality, experts say a brand’s social compass often is directly tied to its ability to lure customers and employees alike.

On the employee side, a growing portion of the workforce wants to know their employer is working not only to advance its own brand, but also to make the world a better place.

“Two of the biggest career motivators right now are purpose-driven work and work that allows people to feel they’re making a real-world impact,” says Bryan Chaney, director of employer brand at job-search website Indeed. “Addressing social issues through your company and brand helps employers accomplish both these goals.”

Millennials in particular want jobs that not only produce a paycheck, but also “make a difference,” says Amanda Minuk, co-founder of Toronto-based Bmeaningful, a job-search website that helps jobseekers find socially minded employers. It’s increasingly common for prospective employees to research a company’s social responsibility before applying for or accepting a job, she says.

Research about Millennials from Cone Communications backs up Minuk’s assertion:

  • 88 percent of respondents say jobs are more fulfilling when they provide opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.
  • 83 percent would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues.
  • 64 percent consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work.
  • 64 percent won’t take a job if a company doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility values.

While Millennials make up a growing share of the future workforce, passion about social issues is not reserved solely to young workers, experts say.

“A company brand is important in attracting top talent and we’re seeing that brands that focus on social issues are viewed more favorably these days,” Minuk says. “Having experienced the effects of the financial crisis, today’s consumers—and employees—believe companies have a responsibility to do more than make a profit and there’s a better way to do business.”

Consumers have even proven they are willing to pay more for goods and services or switch brands, all else being equal, to support companies committed to making a positive social impact, says Minuk.

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is not a new trend, but it is one gaining momentum worldwide. CSR refers to a company’s initiatives to take responsibility for its effects on environmental and social wellbeing, above and beyond what is required of them by law or regulations.

Some firms have been hesitant to implement CSR initiatives because of short-term costs that are incurred by companies as they advocate for social and environmental change. But it’s a practice that brand leaders shouldn’t overlook or underestimate.

“Consumers and employees expect companies to act responsibly and focus on more than profit,” says Minuk. “Consumers are interested in your contribution to society and want to know what you’re doing. Embracing social issues means your company brand will be elevated above businesses that don’t.”

Many brands are embracing social issues, drawing goodwill—and good public relations—for their efforts. A few of them share their experiences and what they have learned along the way:

GoDaddy pushes gender equality

Officials at GoDaddy know many of their customers are women, so it makes good business sense for the web hosting company to foster the advancement of its female employees, says Vice President of Public Relations Elizabeth L. Driscoll.

“About half of our customers are women,” she says. “We also know that a little more than half of small businesses in the U.S. are women-owned. To better serve this significant portion of the population, we want women colleagues helping create, design, service, and market our products. We believe diverse teams build better products.”

The company’s focus on gender equality in the workplace helps it attract both talent and clients, Driscoll says. This year is the third consecutive year in which the company has publicly shared its gender salary statistics. GoDaddy’s latest data, released in October 2016, show that for every dollar male employees earn, female employees earn between 96 cents and $1.02, depending on the job.

The data give a detailed look at the company’s gender breakdown and trends over time. Highlights include:

  • The number of women in technology ranks rose slightly last year.
  • 25 percent of the company’s leadership positions are held by women, unchanged from a year earlier.
  • The number of women in senior leadership positions lagged compared with the prior year.
  • More women held entry-level jobs than in the previous year.

“We release the information to keep ourselves honest with the data and to push into areas where we can improve,” Driscoll says. “It’s a constant mission.”

American Express expands parental policies

In December, American Express made headlines when the financial services company announced it was increasing paid parental leave for U.S-based full- and part-time employees to 20 weeks, effective Jan. 1. At the same time, the company also increased employee benefits for reproductive, surrogacy, adoption, and lactation services.

The move came at a time when paid family leave has become a hot-button issue in the United States.

American Express’ new paid parental leave policy covers women and men who welcome a child through birth, adoption, or surrogacy. In addition, mothers who give birth are eligible to get another six to eight weeks of paid leave if it’s deemed medically necessary.

The United States does not legally mandate any paid leave be granted to parents. The Family Medical Leave Act guarantees certain employees unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks, prompting many new parents to dip into accrued vacation, sick, or personal days if they want to receive pay while taking time off from work.

“American Express remains deeply committed to our working families and an inclusive culture that supports all of our employees,” Kevin Cox, chief human resources officer at American Express, said in a statement when the policy was announced. “These significant enhancements to our benefits reflect a continued investment in the overall wellbeing of our employees and their families.”

PwC Canada engages employees in CSR

At PwC Canada, which provides tax, consulting and other services, embracing social issues is one of the main ways the company engages with its various stakeholders, says Corporate Responsibility Manager Klaudia Watts.

“Our clients and recruits care about our corporate responsibility efforts and we work with them to ensure we are meeting their expectations,” she says. “Our goals are to do the right thing in our own business and act as catalysts for change through our dialogue and thought leadership.”

Employees are encouraged to exchange ideas and seek new opportunities, and it’s important for companies to offer a variety of ways for employees to get involved, she says. About 40 percent of the workforce participates in firm-led, team volunteer initiatives, contributing more than 18,000 hours to local communities, she says.

The company also has corporate responsibility committees in which staff volunteers provide opportunities to others at the company who are passionate about environmental stewardship and social impact. Employees appreciate the opportunity to get involved and connect with like-minded colleagues, says Watts.

“Our commitment to corporate responsibility and sustainability goes beyond embedding social, environmental and economic integrity,” says Watts. “It’s the very fabric of our business.”

In addition, PwC annually releases a “Corporate Responsibility Highlights” report. It lists 2016 accomplishments and charitable giving statistics, and in 2017 its goal is to advance its global disaster humanitarian relief efforts. That goal, according to the report, was inspired in large part by fires in Alberta, Canada that seriously affected 80,000 people in 2016.

Choosing the right cause

Embracing social issues can be rewarding from both moral and business standpoints, but experts caution it should be done only after careful consideration. For all of the positive aspects, there are potential downsides and pitfalls to consider, as well.

Brands that take a stand on a certain issue, for instance, risk alienating consumers and employees who don’t agree with that position or aren’t interested in that particular issue. Indeed’s Chaney warns the practice can be particularly tricky for global companies.

“There’s always a danger of pursuing a cause that will not reflect positively in a certain country or geography,” he says. “Donating to one organization in, say, South Africa, means something very different than if you’re donating to that same cause in Ireland.”

To keep from missing the mark, he says companies need to know their audiences, including clients, employees, and potential talent pool.

“If you have a clear sense of your audience, it’s more likely you’ll focus on the right issues for your business, while also helping to make the world a better place,” says Chaney.

GoDaddy’s Driscoll agrees companies should carefully consider any cause.

“It really comes down to the ‘why,’” she says. “Are you adopting a social issue merely to follow a trend? Or does your company have a purpose in aligning with a social cause? For us, diversity is more than the ‘right thing to do,’ it’s good for business.”

Consumers and employees are savvy and will see through inauthentic talk and actions, so brands need to be genuine in their efforts, says Bmeaningful’s Minuk.

“Doing ‘good’ is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says. “It could be a focus on employee wellness in one company or strategies to sustainably source all products in another. It’s about being true to your brand, your stakeholders, and your culture.”