What The Latest Research Shows About The Demand For Authentic Brands

Evidence shows people expect authenticity when it comes to corporate responsibility. A corporate social engagement expert who authored some of the latest research weighs in.

Mandy Ryan

Managing Director, Changing Our World

Who She Is:

Mandy brings a decade of experience developing and implementing strategic corporate-nonprofit partnerships to Changing Our World’s Corporate Social Engagement practice. She specializes in helping companies design, implement and evaluate strategic citizenship programs that drive business and social impact.

Changing Our World led a new study of Americans aged 18-65, exploring people’s perceptions of and expectations for authenticity in corporate citizenship. Mandy shares the findings of the report, The Authenticity Opportunity, in this interview.

Q: What do you hope corporate leaders will take away from reading The Authenticity Opportunity?

A: The primary takeaway of the study is really quite simple: companies must back up their talk about the causes they support and the good they do with action. We hope corporate leaders do two key things with this information:

  • Resist the pull towards reactionary giving. That is, giving in response to criticism or giving intended to capitalize on a short-term recognition opportunity.
  • Invest time and resources. Develop or maintain a strategic citizenship program and leverages the company’s unique resources to truly make an impact on a cause.

We know most citizenship practitioners want to follow these best practices, but they often face pressures to do otherwise. We hope this report provides them with the evidence to support their case for a strategic approach.

Q: There are a growing number of ways that companies are supporting social issues today. What do Americans see as most impactful?

A: Donating money to a cause is seen as the most impactful way for a company to support a cause and using the company’s skills and expertise to address a cause ranks just behind that.

The emphasis on cash giving reflects an acknowledgement that cash is one of the greatest resources many companies have, and it’s a resource that matches almost every social need.

It is also a reaction to too much lip service–people are wary of companies aligning themselves to causes in ads and public statements and not backing them up with investment in the cause.

But, the near-equal weight people placed on using a company’s skills and expertise shows that the public is sophisticated and is encouraging the trend towards greater integration of social good efforts across the business. People will recognize and reward corporate efforts that use the company’s unique business assets to address an issue, meaning companies can and should maximize their cash contributions by aligning them to the business and deploying resources from across the company.

Q: What’s preventing companies from engaging with social issues in the way we expect from authentic brands?

A: First, I’d say that many, many companies are authentically engaging with social issues. Most every company that I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years has come to Changing Our World because they are looking for a better way to have a greater impact. And, while business impact is an important calculation, social impact is a primary goal.

But some companies do make missteps and, unfortunately, these missteps reflect poorly on the entire field–I think there are a few common reasons:

  • Supporting causes that are out of alignment with business practices: There is a natural inclination to want to react to areas where a company is criticized (for example, environmental impact or employee wages) with corporate giving programs that might reflect positively on the company in those areas (support for environmental causes or workforce development programs). But this is one of the biggest missteps a company can make. Social impact should start at the core of the business and if the business isn’t making serious strides to improve its performance in a problem area, it should not focus its giving there. The result is appearing to attempt to “cover up” poor business practices with these efforts.
  • Seeking “quick wins:” Too often, pressure comes from those not involved in the day-to-day citizenship work to replicate another company’s success on a project or respond to a particular request. The drive is to react to a short-term opportunity or idea, rather than build a thoughtful, long-term strategy. Money and time can get so tied up reacting, that companies never get around to developing a clear strategy that guides what the company’s limited resources should be directed to. The result here is a program that looks scattered and lacks measurable impact.
  • Perceived lack of resources: Our societal challenges are immense, complex and deeply rooted. It can be paralyzing to consider a solution to education, for example, when you take into account the roles of poverty, hunger and nutrition, transportation, and about 100 other interrelated issues. The complexity and scale of addressing social issues can make it scary for companies to put a flag in the ground and say they want to address them. It’s much easier to support general, scattered community needs and to tell the incidental stories of impact from what you support.

Our research shows that consumers and employees are hungry for more and they are sophisticated enough to reward companies for their approach, not just the headlines we might assume they’d respond to.

Q: You outline four attributes of authentic citizenship: having a long-term strategy, putting skin in the game, leveraging core assets, and earning the endorsement of third party advocates. What companies are already doing a great job with this?

A: We often get asked this question and there are many that quickly come to mind like Patagonia, CVS Health, and Levi. One company we work with and really admire is Xylem. Xylem is a water technology company that is committed to “solving water” by creating innovative solutions to address water issues around the globe. Xylem Watermark, the company’s corporate citizenship program, demonstrates its commitment to providing safe water resources for communities in need and educating people about water issues. Through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and an employee volunteer program, Xylem is leveraging its people, products, technology and cash resources to address the world’s greatest water challenges.

It is evident to us that sustainability and solving water aren’t just initiatives at Xylem, but are core to the company’s overall business strategy and an integral part of its purpose and culture. Evidently, Xylem’s partners and employees agree: they are some of the company’s biggest advocates, which in turn should signal to those who don’t know the company as well that it is authentically committed to making a difference.

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Featured Photo: Students create digital tools to solve problems by Yayasan Ekoturisme Indonesia

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