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The changes experienced in sustainability over the last ten years or so have been nothing but phenomenal. More and more companies have embraced the need to act more responsibly and manage their impacts. What started as ‘doing less harm’ has turned into bottom line benefits as companies have found new ways to match managing the triple bottom line with shaving costs off the business bottom line. But you don’t cut yourself into growth and growth is the bread and butter of companies. And it’s the holy grail of sustainability – growing the business top line. That’s why we need consumers to come and join the party – they already do, just look at TOMS, Patagonia, Method, Seventh Generation, Dove and many more. What is missing isn’t the consumer but a better grip on what makes them tick – a sustainable brand they can trust, buy and advocate. In my new book I cut through the myths and noise to create a sustainable brand model, a fusion of product and branding. It’s when these two dance that we create consumer breakthrough and the magic happens. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s simply create more sustainable brands – and this is the ‘how to’ guide that will help you get there.

Use the code Campher15 in the voucher section to get 15% discount!

Link to the book here – Creating a Sustainable Brand: A Guide to Growing the Sustainability Top Line

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The UK and Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to Corporate Responsibility. If I only had a penny for everyone who said this. I hear this almost every single day. And not just from those in England who have a slightly superior attitude when it comes to corporate responsibility. I hear it from people here in the US just as often, if not more. The truth is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Is cricket better than baseball? Only if you are from England. Although you wouldn’t know that from recent results. And you would only like cricket more if you enjoy sitting in the sun and rain for five days and still not get a result. But I digress. They are both ball sports but they are vastly different. They might even share a common history, but that is where it stops.

In the US they believe in Corporate Citizenship and in the UK they believe in Corporate Responsibility. More or less the same, but different just the same. Corporate Citizenship is about what you do in your community. How you interact and how you support them. Corporate Responsibility is about how you run your business – it’s about operations and how you work. The impact is important to both, but in Corporate Citizenship you look at your community and their needs first and the way you work in your community might have something to do with the way you operate, but does not have to. In Corporate Citizenship you focus on your role in society through your operations and the impact you have, and then you improve on these. Through these operational changes you will have a more positive impact on society. Both benefits society, but they have slightly different points of departure.

The reason why the community focus is so central in the US is because there is less of a safety net in the US than in most of Europe. People do not expect government to solve their problems or protect them from every single little thing in life. No, people do that themselves and they tend to look after themselves and after each other. They expect to solve issues themselves. Americans like the idea of less interference by government and more control by themselves in taking responsibility of their own lives. It might have something to do with the open spaces, but Americans do not like people telling them what to do. They want to be masters of their own destiny. Less government and more power to the people.

In the UK and much of Europe there are much more of a reliance on government to interfere in daily life. People expect government to take more control of their daily lives and maintain the rules of how society engage and organize themselves. The rules of engagement. And they want government to identify the common areas of good that will help improve society. Government will tell you what is bad and help you to become better. All that is left for companies to do is ensure they do their best through operations and compliance to government regulations.

That brings me to a second point of difference – regulations and compliance. Corporate behavior is managed through regulations and compliance in the UK and Europe. Everything you do is regulated and not left to the company to try and innovate on their side. Any leadership position you develop is very quickly turned into a government requirement. (Your window of opportunity to show true leadership will stay open for a very short period in this environment). It helps that there is a strong central government in Europe. It makes it easy to push through new regulations. And it is even easier in Europe where the European Commission is hardly held responsible by ‘the people’ and have an almost free ride in bringing in new regulations. No wonder that Europe brought out regulations to define what a banana is – up to the curve needed to be defined as a banana. And I am not joking…

And it is also easy to bring in new regulations in the UK. It is a small island with a central government that runs the rule over everyone. Yes, Scotland and Wales have some autonomy, but the UK is still pretty much ruled from London. It is easy to understand the drive towards more regulations with so much power in the hands of a central government. It is in the nature of government to try and rule their own way. And each new government want to leave behind some kind of legacy. And what is easier than to bring in new regulations that can be sold as ‘for the good of everyone’.

It is different in the US. States control their own destiny much more than any regional authority in the UK. The federal government do not have the power to control everything. Even taxes are different from state to state. And some states like Massachusetts might regulate more towards the protection of people than those in say Texas, but it is up to each state to decide what is most relevant for their state. Federal government can provide guidelines and try and push through federal laws, but this is generally fought tooth and nail by states. The art of the federal government is to try and keep a balance between inching forward on the regulatory front and encouraging states to take control at a local level. But change happens at state level and not federal level.

This approach allows for companies to take more risk in trying out new practices and to develop a leadership position. They know they can bring in these practices without the danger of it being regulated to death. Yes, it is a fine balance. They still have to tell the truth in advertising and not make claims that can’t be backed, but they can be more risky in taking chances. Over in the UK it is slightly different. The aim of regulations is not to bring best practice into law, but to rather identify the lowest common denominator that could be passed as acceptable behavior by companies. I know, both have a place – best practice and lowest common denominator. In the US they lean more towards the former and in the UK more to the latter. It fits their societal and political needs.

Of course the US does have one thing that ensures that the lowest common denominator is ‘self regulated’. The I-will-sue-you culture. You make one mistake and the consumer will take you to the cleaners. Yes, it is out of control, but it creates an incentive for business to not do something that can harm the public. There are enough lawyers here to ensure that you will get sued. Businesses in the UK can hide behind compliance of law and it is much more difficult to sue someone if they haven’t broken the law instead of suing because they didn’t look after the public interest.

And some of the regulations make the way companies act very different. For instance, both the UK and US have regulations regarding how foundations are run. And these are very, very different. US corporate foundations are not allowed to do any work that can directly benefit the company. This was put in place to ensure that companies do not see this as a way to hide money, and to ensure they spend their foundation money on what is good for society as a whole. Very different in the UK. Much more freedom to be strategic in the way they spend their foundation money. They can spend the money on helping suppliers of the company and still write it off under foundation rules. The unbelievable work the Shell Foundation (UK) has done in development in poorer countries would not be allowed under US rules.

The US also likes rock stars and celebrities more than anything else. Man, their news are pathetic over here – give me the BBC please. Every second story is about some celeb and their latest escapade. And that plays out in the way company CEO’s act as well. The CEO and Chairman tend to play a major role in the public view of the company. Bill Gates is Microsoft. Howard Schultz is Starbucks. Steve Jobs is Apple. And each one have to make their mark in this world. Not because they want to, but because people expect them to do their thing from the front – lead the way in how and what they give and the way they run their company. They are the people others look up to and aspire to become. These leaders drive change across all businesses and are needed in a less regulated business environment. They are by default the people who drive real change through their own commitment to making business and society better. Thank God for them.

Less so in the UK. Companies are seen as more important that the individual. A few has made it to the front – Richard Branson as one. But they stand out because they are so different from the rest. The focus tend to be on the company and not the individual who runs it. Yes, they play a role, but the company is seen as less dependent on the CEO and/or Chairman than in the US. Another reason why the UK loves splitting this role while the US wants the same person in charge. Two big egos would be difficult to control in the US.

One area where the US is way ahead of the UK is in communicating their corporate citizenship. They tend to focus on the communications part more while the UK tend to focus more on the operational changes. Maybe it is because the UK society is more reserved than the US, but it means that Ben and Jerry’s is more respected in the US than Unilever. But in the UK it is the other way around. Of course this can be exploited and can confuse the consumer. A classic example is the current discussions in Washington about ‘green’ advertising and marketing. But the best tend to rise to the top and consumers do know to take things with a pinch of salt.

In short, the US is different because it fits in with the way their society organizes itself compared to the UK. Both approaches have real value. Both approaches will improve the world little by little. Both approaches will have failures and successes. But the one is not better than the other. Just different. Dealing with their own little peculiarities in their society and political systems. Both work. And both fails. I don’t need to remind you of the current economic failure in the US thanks to a regulate-yourself culture. But the US is not in any way behind the UK when it comes to the role of business in society. No. They are just different. A US approach won’t last a second in the UK. And the UK approach won’t survive a second in the US. The real challenge for them both is to adapt when they are outside their own borders, culture and comfort zone. For example, neither will last long in China or South Africa if they just try to continue working the way they do in their country of origin. New rules and new ways of operating is needed. They have to bring the best of their world and merge it with the societal and political expectation in these new countries. And that won’t be better either. Just better for that specific country.

Bu the discipline of business in society benefits from this dynamics – bringing different approaches to the table. And it is when these merge and mingle that we move further ahead in this world of ours. Of course there is one approach that works no matter where you are. The South African approach. But I won’t be giving away our secrets just yet. No, I am way to responsible to do something like that.

Corporate Social Responsibility is about what business can do – not about what business must do. It is about opportunities and business benefits – not about obligations or new rules. And the sooner companies develop integrated approaches to identify and react to opportunities the better. And the quicker they put business returns and stakeholders, and specifically the consumer, at the forefront of CSR the better for both them and the CSR business model.

Tangible business benefits are ultimately realized through operational efficiencies (CSR strategy) and effective communications (CSR communications), through PR, advertising, brand, online and other ways to bring the benefits to the consumer and other stakeholders. What is needed is an integrated CSR strategy and communications approach, that is aligned with brand identity and positioning, to effectively engage target stakeholders, especially consumers, and build brand trust, loyalty and affiliation. By working across a company’s different functional areas, understanding and working within the commercial realities of a company, and making stakeholders key, CSR can strengthen and improve the businesses of companies.

CSR strategy development, which is informed by business objectives, market realities and stakeholder input, provides company direction for risk minimization, operational improvements and future growth. This strategy should be informed by and aligned with brand identity and positioning that helps position the company to stand as a responsible and leading corporate citizen – thereby building brand trust, loyalty and affiliation.

CSR communication strategies positively engage stakeholders, specifically consumers, and create on-going dialogue and interaction with the company. This engagement is in turn used to continuously inform strategy, refine brand identity and positioning, and propel continuous improvements creating a cycle of CSR leadership and business benefits.

This integrated approach provides companies with tangible benefits targeted at their own and their stakeholders’ commercial, social and environmental needs as well as the methodology to continuously improve their business, ensure CSR leadership and business benefits, and strengthen brand trust and value – now and in the future.

So, what’s my beef with PR? They play a central role in all this, right? Yes they do. A key role. But my problem is that almost all of them see this as vanilla PR. Yes, they’ll talk about how important it is and say all the right things – remember, they are in PR. But then they will focus on all the philanthropy work of the company – not the operational impacts. They’ll write CSR reports full of beautifully crafted stories of how the company has helped some poor family in Ethiopia, and hardly ever talk about what is material to the company. They’ll pitch the good stuff to the media, but not engage with stakeholders on the bad stuff. They’ll devise participatory employee volunteering schemes, but not talk about the lack of union representatives of the 5% of the workforce that got cut in the last round of ‘streamlining’. And they won’t mention that some workers in the supply chain might be just as bad off as that family in Ethiopia. They’ll talk and talk about the good stuff, because they don’t actually know how the company operates. It doesn’t help that they always talk to corporate communications/public affairs or corporate affairs (take your pick) and hardly ever to product development, HR, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain management or H&S.

One of the experiences that I despised the most while at the International Business Leaders Forum was the PR agencies constantly running to us to help them in their communications of their clients CSR practices. And this ‘advice’ can range from helping them write a CSR report to just telling them what CSR actually means, or just ‘engaging’ stakeholders. But when it came to the client or public, they acted as if they knew everything. Man, they can tell you in so many ways how they can bring the CSR of your company to life – whether you actually have CSR practices or not is irrelevant.

The problem is that PR agencies are geared towards communications. Yes, it might be aligned with the brand or corporate values if you are lucky, but PR agencies know zilch of operations. They will spin you stories on how important operations are, but they know very little of the actual dynamics of business outside communications. PR agencies are good at the communications bit, and consultants are good at the operational bits. But they talk different languages and have very different views on what brings value to the company. PR agencies see the value of CSR as how they can ‘PR’ it. Talk about it, blow it up bigger than what it is and pull off a few gimmicks. But CSR will remain outside of the company and remain without value if you have a PR approach to it. Yes, PR agencies all of a sudden have CSR departments and talk the talk. But have a close look at the people they employ at the CSR unit – PR or political campaigning backgrounds. Not those who have an understanding of operational improvements or even global developmental backgrounds. CSR will remain meaningless if we allow it be driven by PR. It must be driven by both communications and operations. And we need people to understand both. If not, well then we will continue to not bring business benefits AND development gains.

Just look at what consumers believe – they believe everything is spin. And they are not far off when it comes to the role of PR in all of this. And the examples like Wal-Mart and their online strategy is not good stakeholder engagement. But it happens when you drive your CSR through PR communications. PR has a role to play, but they need to get their house in order before they kill off CSR completely.

But don’t worry. PR is not the only guilty one from an agency side. Those consultants. They know nothing of communications. Or actual business benefits. They’ll do your CO2 emissions whether you make cars or plant trees. And design new eco-friendly offices whether you are a financial institution or farmer. No, they’ll sell you anything as long as it can relate to something in your operations. Don’t get me started on them…

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