There are plenty of respected voices that dismiss corporate social responsibility as a fuzzy distraction from the real business of business: making profits and delivering shareholder value. As the economist Milton Friedman put it: "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits."
Management guru Peter Drucker agreed that business has to make enough profit to secure its future, but insisted that its proper social responsibility is to turn a social problem into economic opportunity and economic benefit, productive capacity, human competence, well-paid jobs and wealth.
The two sides of the argument might be characterized as "Profit is the responsibility" vs. "Profit is only part of the responsibility." Fortunately, another choice has opened up for business: profit through responsibility. The key to this is a shift in what motivates people's buying decisions.
Of course consumers want good deals on great products. That's a given -- but it's not enough. With economic, environmental and social crises in the news, the immediate gratification of the buyer's high is increasingly spoiled by flashes of doubt and even guilt. In troubled times, people prefer to buy with a good conscience; they want to feel pleasure that is more meaningful and more lasting than that derived from buying the latest gizmo or getting three items they don't particularly need for the price of two.
We're not alone in thinking that consumers are becoming more motivated by ethical values. Plenty of well-known brands have successfully built that insight into their businesses. As marketers, we're keen to verify the trend and track it, especially among the proactive and influential "prosumers" who lead the way. In our survey work we have found that more than three-quarters of American prosumers prefer to buy from companies that share their personal values; seven in 10 say it's more important to them today to feel good about the companies with which they do business. In other words, there's a business case for companies to make good conscience a strategic part of what they offer to attract, engage and retain their customers.
Still, even the most ardent supporters of CSR must recognize that there's a big risk of creating cringe-making goody-two-shoes initiatives that turn people off. Can CSR strategies be fun, attractive and maybe even sexy? We think so.
Earlier this summer, we published "The Creative Business Idea Book: Ten Years of Breakthrough Thinking," showcasing some of our best campaigns of the past decade. It's no coincidence that a number of them are big on social responsibility. One of the case studies is the Dulux "Let's Colour" campaign, which has engaged AkzoNobel employees and volunteers in revitalizing communities around the world with a fresh coat of colorful paint. From schools to public housing projects and community centers, teams have brightened up neighborhoods—in London, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, Jodhpur, Rio, and elsewhere— spreading pride and pleasure and helping to revitalize formerly bleak spaces. Thus far, the campaign has engaged thousands of volunteers, thanks to the official website, more than 700 independent blogs and a widely tweeted brand film, "The Walls." Fun: check. Fostering the common good: check. Good for the brand and business: check.
That's not all. Companies that rate well on CSR also have an advantage in attracting great employees, especially from the millennial generation. Social responsibility is important to them in all their roles as workers, as consumers and as citizens. They want to be proud of where they work and what they do, and they believe that socially conscious businesses will ultimately win out. In a recent global study we found that 70% of millennials surveyed believed the most successful companies in the future will be those that practice sustainability. In an earlier global survey, more than 90% of young people said the world needs to be changed, and more than 80% said it is the responsibility of their generation to bring about that change.
Our business is built on the belief that brands should make social responsibility a core element of their business strategy. It builds reputation; it attracts and motivates good employees; it catches the attention of customers and fosters emotional bonds with them; it creates goodwill and multiple opportunities for communication.
Do corporations have the option to disregard CSR and focus on profit alone? We don't think so. Citizens, activists and politicians have the desire and the means to hold businesses to account through the traditional media and increasingly through digital media. We are convinced that fostering the common good through CSR drives profitable growth because it challenges brands and their agencies to think up new ways to communicate and connect more effectively.