By Ofuma Agali
There is a time for everything under the sun, the wise King Solomon said in the Book of Proverbs. The greening era is here; popular in some climes, unpopular yet in others. But it appears it has come to stay. And for some of us, it is nothing but the respect for the environment in which businesses operate and the quest to make it even safer. It will seem therefore that this green trend has some kind of relationship with corporate social responsibility (CSR) as the latter has been linked by experts to respect for people, the society and the environment while ensuring ethical behaviour and economic development.
Basically though, it seems the primary objective of CSR is for companies to ‘give back’ to the communities where they have been doing business and making profit. Within this argument lies the paradox – why should business give away some of its profit if the aim of the business is to make profit? The main nucleus of conflict is the fact that companies pay taxes to the government of the nations where they operate. In the light of this, CSR appears to be an unnecessary form of philanthropy; not worth serious consideration by the corporate organisations.
In 2008, at a CSR Roundtable organised by Brands & Products Publications and Conferences, this was the main argument as participant sought to find the link between CSR and return on investment (ROI). I can still recall the comments of Prof. Akin Oyebode, who was then the Head of International Law & Diplomacy at the University of Lagos. After a heated debate at the event, he concluded: “There is no free lunch. So do not expect that corporations will be doing these things for free. These are capitalist organisations, not charity organisations. I do not think we should be kidding ourselves that CSR activities are charity.”
This, coupled with the reflections on the argument of Milton Friedman, foremost American economist, turned the debate into fireworks that revealed various perspectives on CSR. With CSR debates heating up in the 70s, Friedman had emphasised that the corporate social responsibility of business is to make profit.
Talking about brands, a question was raised in a discussion forum as to which should be addressed seriously; branding and brand building. What emerged was a near cacophony of marketing debates and chronicles. Of course, we all know that the fundamental objective of branding is to create a distinct identity – the type that can be recognised easily by the consumer. But as we now know it, issues of identity appears to have become as complex as life itself; as visual symbols are no longer sufficient to evoke the full image of the organisation or a brand. Talking about colour alone, how can one really draw the line between MTN, Lipton Tea, Maggi Cube, Western Union and others? No wonder Martin Lindstrom had proposed branding beyond the senses of sight and hearing. He proposed the use of activities that can excite the senses – taste and smell.
Way beyond symbolism as a brand identity cue, we now have behaviour and communication also delineating brands. When you think of a particular organisation, what images do you see? These would undoubtedly take you beyond the visual brand dimensions. You will most likely consider signals that the organisation had sent out in the past and is currently sending to various stakeholder groups through its activities with customers and through its communication to the general public. You will most likely consider the behaviour – personal and collective conduct – of interfacing employees and managers. You will most likely consider information – confirmed or unconfirmed – from the rumour mill about the organisation. You will most likely consider what a friend or family member has told you about the organisation arising from that person’s interaction with the organisation.
And today, you will most likely consider various nuggets of information making rounds on social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. You will most likely put all these cues together – consciously or unconsciously – to form an opinion about this organisation.
Today, brand image can therefore be said to be influenced by customer expectations and experience, perceptual dimensions, rational thinking, emotional inclinations and all other factors that can influence the contemporary consumer. This clearly takes branding out of the strictly tangible field into the realm of the intangible. Going by this argument, it makes sense to utilise every available opportunity to project the image of the brand or the organisation in order to generate positive cues and stimulate positive consumer interest. In creating a robust brand image, the process must be continuous; leveraging everyday happenings and technologies.
Perhaps, it is due to this great push to build the brand image that organisations tend to take advantage of opportunities that CSR offer. Jim “Gus” Gustafson of Strategic Leadership Research & Development at United States Cellular said of CSR that “in addition to being the right thing to do, it is good business.”
If giving away part of the profits made on behalf of shareholders is good business, then perhaps it can be good thinking on the part of organisations to ‘take back’ from the giving. It is common knowledge to people in marketing today that many organisations spend so much money announcing to the public what they are giving in terms of CSR.
This issue has raised a lot of dust in the industry. Oliver Nnona, CEO of Profiliant Development Resources once remarked that “it is not CSR when a company makes a donation and comes out to talk about it…” Well, sometimes it can be funny to watch on Nigeria Television Authority’s (NTA’s) Newsline, for instance, a sixty second or more reportage on a company that has donated 10 bags of rice and such commodities to an orphanage or other children’s home.
Yes, the arguments may continue but in truth, today’s consumer has access to too much information and too many alternatives to choose from because of media fragmentation and explosion in communication channels. He has access to intricate details of consumer experiences all over the world. As such, the consumer is now the master of his or her game and appears to be all too conscious of this.
How do you please such a consumer in an era of so many alternatives? If an organisation implements its CSR and goes on to provide a blow-by-blow account to the consumer, will it please or irritate the consumer? Is it possible that the consumer may be of the mindset that CSR is part of business and so expects organisations to build it seamlessly into their corporate agenda? In my opinion, this may actually be the case. Especially as CSR, if developed and deployed strategically, can help appeal further to the emotions of the consumer as part of the cue sets that can trigger off positive images, the right perception, and eventually good reputation.
Again, as the greening concept promotes respect and consideration for the environment, it should even be more exciting for business people. Globally, there are growing concerns about the environment and how these impact on our health and living and surroundings.
According to Andy Mannle, Education Director, West Coast Green, in an article on why green business is good:
When it comes to the green economy, the benefits are clear: clean, local, secure sources of energy; healthier, more efficient buildings and businesses; 21st century infrastructure for water, energy, and transportation that is safer, smarter, and less wasteful. All of these translate to savings worth hundreds of billions of dollars…
On the general reaction to green issues, Mannle noted that the costs of inaction are ever increasing… and the “BP oil spill is a sure sign that our reliance on dirty, dangerous, dwindling resources is hurting our economic security and prosperity.”
Are there green concerns in these clime? And do you think these are platforms for businesses to become more socially responsible and thereby connect more effectively with the consumer? You decide.
First published in Nigeria Social Enterprise Report (2011) Vol. 5
Featured image credit: cognitivesoftwaretech.com
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