If you still think corporate social responsibility is a ruse to sway sappy consumers, you haven't yet experienced the power of "we." Both consumers and businesses are harnessing social media to move corporate policies from "me first" to "we first" behavior, and author Simon Mainwaring just released the blueprints for this new business paradigm.
In his new book "We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World
," Mainwaring explains how consumers are instating a new system of corporate checks and balances by way of social media engagement. I had the privilege of interviewing this author and brand consultant on some of the most perplexing issues challenging the potential of cause-driven capitalism. You can view his enlightening responses below and read my full book review here
MNN: Your book calls for some very progressive "we first" business standards. Yet companies aiming for these standards can fall victim to inaccurate, exaggerated claims. How can companies be sure to innovate at the same speed they communicate about ethical business initiatives? What sort of advising, partnerships or interdepartmental collaboration can help to keep these elements of production and promotion in sync?
SM: Outright, the issue of inaccurate or exaggerated claims causes enormous problems for brands in the social business marketplace. Transparency and accountability are absolutely critical to their success, so inaccurate statements under any circumstance will only hurt the brand.
That said, the type of collaboration that needs to go on internally is determined by the structure of the organization itself. The challenge right now for brands is that, by and large, they're organized in a hierarchical structure that was designed to maintain control from the top down. Yet in order to respond in real time and be nimble enough to change with technology, corporations need to be more distributed in a dandelion or hub-and-spoke structure.
So, in either case, if a brand hopes to keep in sync in terms of its ethical behavior and the promotion of it, a brand needs to clearly establish its core values in the first place, have leadership, communicate those values to their employees as well as their customers, and to have the entire organization constantly monitor whether they are living up to those standards and communicating them effectively with their customer base.
Your book covers mostly high-profile companies when discussing successes in ethical business. Do you feel that it will be precedents from large corporations that ultimately move sustainability forward more so than niche companies founded purely in reaction to social issues? How do you think these niche companies will be able to compete in an atmosphere of increasingly mainstream corporate social responsibility initiatives?
I largely focused on some of the most high profile companies for both positive and negative reasons. Positive in the sense that, as a function of their scale, they have the potential to have the greatest impact in terms of reducing the effects of their corporate behavior (what's called negative externalities), and also have the greatest potential to have a positive impact as a function of their expertise, resources and bricks-and-mortar reach.
It's often the case that these larger brands have the resources to do the most research as to consumer sentiment and what these customers are now looking for from them. As such, many of these larger companies are being the first to embrace the social business marketplace, to engage with media-savvy consumers and to demonstrate purposeful engagement because they recognize that customers now want a brand to have a meaningful impact in their lives.
In terms of smaller niche companies, they're almost at an advantage in that firstly they've been born of the technology that is redefining the marketplace, and secondly, as a function of being smaller they are more capable of being nimble and responding to changes in the marketplace and changes among their consumers in real time.
Ultimately, it's not a question of the size of the company that determines how well it responds to the marketplace and how widely its purposeful efforts resonate, but rather the commitment of its leadership, employees and customers in partnership to achieve goals that benefit everybody.
Studies confirm the majority of consumers are willing to buy products deemed ethical or cause-related, but many people complain about premium prices for these products. Do you feel that corporate social responsibility campaigns often alienate thrifty consumers? Or do you feel CSR is becoming mainstream in terms of awareness and price?
Research by firms such as Edelman proves that many consumers are, in fact, willing to pay more for products that are ethical or cause related. In particular, I recommend the Edelman Good Purpose report of 2010. As to whether corporate CSR programs are alienating thrifty consumers, those consumers must bear an equal responsibility for the change they want to see in the world. By that I mean that consumers can no longer have everything they want at the price they want and live in the world they want to live in. If in the short term it means that customers must pay a little bit more to encourage brands to be more socially responsible, then that is the role they can play in driving the change they want to see in the world.
Ironically, more often than not, these very sustainability practices reduce the price of products in conjunction with social media (which dramatically cuts down the cost of marketing compared to traditional media). The combination of sustainable practices and social media is a very effective way for a brand to market itself.
What advice do you have for consumers who believe their small actions can't shake giant corporate policies? Where would the current corporate social responsibility movement be today if it weren't for consumer advocacy via social media?
It's understandable that consumers are concerned that their individual actions won't make a difference, yet every consumer today lives in an extrordinary time in that they have the benefit of social media to amplify their voice. Not only can they share with their friends, family and community brands that they support or criticize depending on their socially responsible behavior, but they can actually organize communities around what they care about. They can make it very clear to brands what they expect from them in terms of corporate social responsibility, how they treat their employees and how they treat the environment.
The fact remains that if consumers do not choose to engage and take responsibility for remaking our world, there is no incentive for corporations to change. A large responsibility falls on consumers, and without consistent consumer advocacy via social media, I believe that CSR will continue in much the same fashion as it has today, which is, while some efforts are well intended, the funds and resources they generate are simply not enough. Too often these efforts are made disingenuously, or merely to serve as window dressing for the negative impact of some brands.
The fact remains that even brands can't survive in societies that fail, and nor can they expect to have a customer base if there's no middle class left, in which case it is smart business and in the interest of brands to share prosperity among more people and ensure the well being of society so they too, as a businesses, can thrive.