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Globally, more brands are learning the power of giving back to the people they sell products to. But in China, a country with an endless list of social and environmental challenges to tackle, branded corporate social responsibility campaigns aren't making as much impact as they could.
The missed opportunity is especially striking since middle-class Chinese consumers use social media and their smartphones way more than their American counterparts do, often for vocalizing opinions on social or environmental matters.
It's not that there is a lack of corporate social responsibility campaigns in China: Fujifilm, Coca-Cola and Starbucks have all created initiatives to give back to different communities in China -- raising money for mothers in need, generating awareness on breast cancer and even creating a barista university.
But these campaigns didn't provide the engagement and buzz that were probably hoped for. Problem being, Chinese consumers are bombarded with branded messages, so creating a campaign for a worthy cause is not sufficient.
The takeaway: Brands in China have to mix creativity and the technology used by consumers to deliver compelling messages. Other Asian campaigns have provided some great examples of this.
Cannes Grand Prix winner TXTBKS, launched by Smart Communications in the Philippines with the help of DDB, repurposed old mobile phones into schoolbooks for kids in Manilla. In Singapore, Ogilvy and SingTel launched Silverline, a recycled smartphone program with a redesigned user interface for elder generations, bringing back a Gold Lion from Cannes. Finally, Indian telco Tata Docomo, with its media agency IBS, used social networks to launch the Bloodline Club, a social initiative matching blood donors with recipients.
Within China, one of the most memorable campaigns was not from a brand, but created by JWT for non-governmental organization BaoBeiHuiJia, which helps locate missing children in China. The agency created a mobile app matching users' pictures of street-begging children to a database of missing children. It rallied unprecedented support, engaging with many more users than those who actually downloaded the app, and gained awards and recognition from international media. Most importantly, it reunited several families. What brand wouldn't want to play a role in such positive community-driven communications?
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Oli Goulden, who runs a consultancy in Hong Kong advising brands on social enterprise initiatives, told me that "China is the country that gives the least to charity per individual, solely because (people) believe it is companies' and the government's responsibility to solve societal problems."
Surprisingly, according to the 2012 GoodPurpose Study by Edelman, 80% of Chinese consumers are ready to pay a premium for products and services offered by a company that support a good cause. Goulden added, "Most people want to do good in China, and brands have the power to make it happen. As there is a lack of trust in charity organizations due to large-scale scandals, brands can be vehicles of social movements."
We also need to bear in mind that in China, ties and relationships are of greater importance than in the West. Brands that want to succeed when engaging Chinese consumers on social responsibility need to ask themselves -- how relevant is their campaign to their target consumers, their community, their city and ultimately, China?
One final thought: Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said in 2011, "There needs to be a balance between commerce and social responsibility. The companies that are authentic about it will wind up as the companies that make more money."
Three years later, most brands active in China still underestimate the power of this philosophy to engage with consumers and connect, creatively, to the digital environment they live in.