Selling to the empowered consumer: To make a profit, you have to make a difference

EmpoweredCustomer

Going to school in Ithaca, NY introduced me to many things: gorge jumping, composting and more than one vegan with dreadlocks.

Perhaps most important was the concept of sustainability. That six-syllable word, which grew to have many synonyms, was pounded into my head during all four years. It started off as annoying. What could I do to make the world better? But slowly, the “make a difference” mantra became inspiring.

As a marketing major in a school that infused sustainability into all coursework, I learned about ethical and philanthropic business practices and consumer preference for those that follow them. Out in the idyllic town itself, I saw it firsthand in the “buy local” signs, the popularity of fair-trade and re-use shops, and the protests for workers’ rights. Of course, I was well aware of the importance of going green before heading off to school. But I gradually woke up to something really wonderful in my studies and observations.

As a consumer, I can help change the world.

When I returned home—Method soap and reusable shopping bags in hand—I realized Ithaca is outstanding for its focus on green, but it’s not an anomaly. People everywhere are taking up the rally cry for socially good businesses. And they’re creating real change with the power of their wallets.

GOOD BUSINESSES DO GOOD.

Yes, that’s proper English.

In other words, companies that perform well today understand that they need to pass as good corporate citizens in order to do so. Gone are the days when being tied to a social cause was reserved for non-profits. And tacking on year-end charitable giving or employee volunteering won’t cut it. Consumers now expect businesses to do more, to go beyond what’s required by laws and codes, and to earn their trust and loyalty by showing they genuinely care—through what they do with their profits and how they make them.

In a 2012 report on the Global, Socially-Conscious Consumer, Nielsen confirmed that consumers around the world today prefer companies making a positive difference in society. Two-thirds prefer to buy from them, and a slightly smaller percentage prefer to work for and invest in them. Most telling of the rising “socially-conscious” consumer, nearly half (46%) say they’ll even pay extra for products and services from these companies.

According to research from BAV Consulting, the last five years have seen a steady correlation between social responsibility and what they call “admired differences” in brands across industries. Brands with strong “admired differences” scores stand out and earn respect from consumers, helping to build brand equity.

It’s clear that doing good is good for the bottom line. But why the (relatively recent) rage for corporate social responsibility?

NO, CARING IS NOT A NEW PHENOMENON.

Consumers demand more from the corporate world because they can. We have more choices, more information and more of a voice than ever. We research what brands are up to, we comparison-shop, we read our friends’ reviews and we can tell all of our social sphere what we think through posts, tweets, likes and comments. Brands are under a microscope and can’t even misuse a hashtag without an immediate social media nightmare.

But as much as we expose the bad, we also perpetuate the good. We engage with socially conscious businesses not only by buying from them but talking them up and sharing their content.

There are whole websites dedicated to connecting consumers with socially good businesses, like The Good Guide.

Smart brands know this and incorporate social causes into their marketing efforts—like Bank of America with the Express Your Thanks campaign, now in its third year. For up to one million dollars, the company donated a buck to non-profits that help veterans for every use of the hashtag #TroopThanks on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Its video on the campaign’s presence at NYC’s Fleet Week has been viewed close to 800,000 times since it was posted in early July.

WE ALL LOVE A WARM, FUZZY FEELING.

With the constant bombardment of negative news in the information age of today, it’s refreshing to hear positive stories. And we latch on to opportunities to contribute.

Who wouldn’t want to share that the shoes they bought also provided a pair to a child in need? Or that the dress they’re wearing was created by a company helping women rise above poverty? There are countless examples of businesses answering the growing demand for socially good practices, and they’re not just in the fashion industry.

Entrepreneurs launch small start-ups, mobile apps and even large operations every day with social responsibility infused directly into their business model, while existing brands adjust theirs to include it. Take Wal-Mart, for instance. Only a few years back, the name brought to mind sweatshop labor. More recently, the retail giant is applauded for hiring veterans across the country—even from the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama.

The reason Wal-Mart and others have been successful is pretty simple: it’s easy to love something that makes us feel good.

WHAT TO DO TO BE GOOD.

There are plenty of steps, both little and big, to practicing corporate social responsibility—from donating to charity to partnering with local non-profits and reexamining your entire operation for ways to be more environmentally conscious and sensitive to community needs.

No matter the path you take, a few elements are essential:

  • Commitment. Make doing good a priority, not an afterthought.
  • Transparency. Be ethical and open about business practices—speak human.
  • Responsiveness. Prepare to engage in constant conversation, even if it means acknowledging criticism.
  • Sincerity. Be real—if you’re not, people will see through you.

If you’re truly serious about pursuing corporate social responsibility, check out B Lab. Learn about stamped B Corps, how they’re using business as a force for good and the steps necessary to become one. I hear they do great things.