Companies and their brands’ relationships with customers have always been fickle, and today consumers are more skeptical about their purchasing decisions than ever before. Financial scandals, economic uncertainty, and perceived declines in standards, product quality, and customer service are amongst the factors that have made it more difficult for companies to connect with their consumer base. With the rising interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR), companies have an opportunity to cement their relationships with a more skeptical public. Attaining that level of trust and emotional bonding, however, is not easy.
Customers ask far more pointed questions about products and services than they did a generation ago. Inquiries about price and performance now compete with questions over a product or service’s impact on the planet, where it is manufactured, how profits are invested, and the working conditions of the people who assemble and package them in some far-off land. Add consumers’ perceptions that corporations are more powerful than ever before, pair those concerns with the constant bad news that has spiked thanks to a 24/7 media cycle, and companies face the reality that enormous hurdles lie in the way of them becoming deeply connected with their customers.
CSR is more than about doing good; it is also about implementing strong, solid business practices that can contribute more to the company’s long-term bottom line. At a time when consumers are drowning in endless marketing messages, CSR offers companies an opportunity not only to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, but to strengthen emotional bonds with their customers.
The road towards the building of great trust, and even affection, between companies and customers by way of CSR messaging, however, is one full of potholes. Come across as crass promotion, especially during a humanitarian crisis, and customers are repelled and are long jaded. The adoption of a cause that has merit, but appears to have nothing to do with a company’s core market and operations, only confuses customers. Finally, attempts to replace a poor product, or a reputation for substandard customer service, results in the further disengagement of customers and stakeholders from a company.
At a time when just about every product offering is commoditized, CSR can launch a strong emotional bond between companies and customers. The reasons lie beyond the support of a good cause or promises to be more ethical: remember that CSR often embodies not only a stand on environmental and social issues, but a strong commitment to transparency. Customers now demand not only products that allow them to feel better about their purchases, but they want proof that a company’s executives and employees share their values. The outcome can be a greater affinity between company and customer, and to that end, brighter business opportunities.
The challenges for companies in articulating their CSR messages is two-fold: how to impart new CSR initiatives without an appearing self-serving; and preempting their customers’ questions about everything from ethical sourcing to cause marketing campaigns. The media available to CSR professionals is more diverse than ever before, from social media channels and innovative web design to videos and podcasts. Before settling on the media to be used, however, a CSR team has got to develop a strong, transparent, and coherent message.