Corporate Social Responsibility Is Not a Marketing Strategy

CMO Spotlight: Karen Quintos, Dell

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"Be the change you wish to see in the world." Sound familiar? It's an oft-misattributed Gandhi quote puttering around on America's bumpers and inked in high school yearbooks. While Gandhi never spoke these words, the message is a noble one. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the sentiment informs some of America's most innovative brands when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

Karen Quintos
Karen Quintos

The cynical version of this story tells us that CSR comes from a desire for good publicity, or perhaps a positive marketing push. At Dell, this version simply doesn't stick, says senior VP-CMO Karen Quintos. "Ultimately, CSR is not a marketing strategy -- it's a tool for building a better business," she says. Indeed, this do-better impetus permeates Dell's entire life cycle -- driving leadership, culture, production, design, business objectives, revenue and more. Quintos's leadership in this area earned her a well-deserved Social Responsibility accolade at The CMO Awards, where together we dove deeper into this fascinating ethos.

More than a feeling

Rather than a feel-good campaign or series of projects, at Dell, corporate social responsibility is "a mindset that's part of our culture," says Quintos. In a world of growing demand and finite resources, Dell creates value for customers and communities through both its products and its processes. The point of technology, after all, is finding solutions to some of life's biggest problems, with the intention of leaving the world a better place for future generations.

Dell's Legacy of Good Plan outlines 21 ambitious CSR goals that Quintos says her team intends to achieve by 2020. Among them, she calls out the industry-leading circular economy practices of designing out waste and creating a more sustainable supply chain. "To date, we've recycled more than 4.2 million pounds of e-waste plastics and put them back into new Dell products," she says, in addition to replacing virgin materials with recycled carbon fiber to keep millions more pounds of waste out of landfills. "These programs provide greater efficiency to Dell, but also to our customers, who are increasingly looking for help to achieve their own CSR goals," Quintos says.

When business benefits and societal success align

As many CMOs are aware, getting the green light for programs that may not seem directly tied to revenue requires necessary perseverance. However, Quintos says that educating and shifting mindsets within management is crucial. "There's a perception that these programs involve compromising on cost or quality, but we're actually seeing the opposite," she tells me. "CSR initiatives are often a source of hidden efficiencies and innovation" in addition to providing societal benefits.

For example, in product packaging: "Since 2009, we've saved more than $50 million and avoided 30 million pounds of packaging by using sustainable materials and deliberately reducing the amount of packaging used to ship our products." Tens of millions in savings is certainly nothing to sneeze at. "It's also a great innovation story with real benefit to our planet and our customers," says Quintos, "many of whom share our commitment to a cleaner planet."

The culture of social responsibility

In Quintos's opinion, the best approach to achieving CSR success, besides management's approval, is deeply embedding it into the mission of the company. "Everything we do from a CSR perspective ties back to our core belief that the purpose of technology is to enable people to solve problems, make discoveries, and advance society on a global scale." This includes programs to provide universal access to IT and training starting with underserved youth, and working with doctors to bring high-level computing to the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric cancer. "When your CSR strategy is grounded in your company purpose," says Quintos, "it becomes a lot more clear what and how you should be engaging with your people, communities and planet."

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