CSR has served its purpose. Now it’s all about advocacy

In the current age of “authenticity,” corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a descriptor of a brand’s social commitment to the communities in which it operates has reached its end.

It’s become too generic, defined by a host of various “good deed” initiatives—from charitable donations to an employee-driven volunteer initiative. All worthy pursuits, but to classify any altruistic and philanthropic initiative conventionally (and conveniently) under the CSR banner blurs the line between degrees of brand commitment to a cause.

I’m a huge proponent of persuading the brands with which I work to be far more strategic and generous about their philanthropic commitments. But, in my opinion, CSR isn’t philanthropy and the two should be entirely separate.

It appears too late for that, however, as they have long since become synonymous. I’ve stopped using the term CSR and now talk a lot about social advocacy—pressing for public support of a particular issue, cause or policy.

Some would say this isn’t for the “faint of heart.” That to unambiguously make a bold advocacy claim regarding a social, environmental or cultural issue would alienate portions of a brand’s constituency, making it far too risky.

Better to take timid measures so as not to offend (or inspire) anyone. Yet leadership doesn’t come without risks, and I would argue that any positive “word of mouth” from the segment of a brand’s constituency that supports the claim far outweighs the negative impact of those who take offence.

You’ve seen the power of potent brand advocacy. Nike is perhaps the most obvious brand advocate, thanks to its support of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to stand up to his NFL employers in the name of social justice and the slew of gross injustices against black Americans.

It’s also there in Patagonia’s longstanding—and equally compelling—advocacy to persuade consumers to buy less in order to salvage the planet. It’s smaller entrepreneurial driven companies, like my own, that commit in word, deed and mission to being allies to trans, queer and non-binary people.

So you see the problem with the generic nature of CSR. It simply doesn’t do justice to this level of brand commitment, and in many ways has become a convenient cover for risk-averse brands. They don’t have to put a stake in the ground if they can claim they give back in some way or another.

In a recent survey by Chief Executive magazine and University of Southern California, 60% of CEOs were unlikely to communicate about any social issues. A survey by Deloitte found that 80% of CMOs did not believe it was appropriate for their brand to take a stance on politically charged issues. Yet, according to a poll by Accenture, 62% of consumers want companies to stand up for the issues they care about.

If brands are truly hellbent on meeting their customers’ needs (and I’ve never worked with one that isn’t) then it’s time to take a stand and work hard to bring as many of your peers, competitors, stakeholders and customers along with you in the spirit of amplifying a movement.

There is ample evidence that brands that have made bold and brave advocacy claims have fared pretty well. So take the leap already.

Kenneth Evans is managing partner and co-owner of Apex Public Relations and ruckus Digital, and the host of the podcast series The Pivot at cmolab.ca.