Two weeks ago, Gillette launched a new advertising campaign and in the process made its brand the centerpiece of controversy. Maybe that was the intended consequence – to generate conversation about a brand that has been struggling to regain lost marketshare. But if that is the goal, does Gillette really want to create controversy from current CSR trends? Shouldn’t social responsibility messaging bring us together, not drive us apart?

Last month, I shared a CSR Christmas Wish for 2019, and I promised not to make CSR trend predictions for the new year. I’m sticking with that promise. But CSR trends abound nonetheless. Sometimes we need to step back and think about whether or not our company, charity, or government organization should follow an emerging trend. Sometimes the best advice is how NOT to act. It’s like the question we heard as kids and have asked as parents:

If all your friends want to jump off a bridge, are you going to follow them?

So, here we go … three CSR trends NOT to follow in 2019 … at least not blindly. Caution: what follows may make you want to ring my neck. Instead, I ask that you read this to end, then give me a shout if you’d like to discuss. It’s less painful.

CSR Trend 1. Businesses should be advocates for social change

There has been a lot written about the controversial Gillette ad. Some positive, but a lot negative. Rather than re-hash the debate, I’m going to point you to the person whom I think best sums up the issue, Villanova Professor of Marketing Charles Taylor, a Contributor at Forbes. In Why Gillette’s New Ad Campaign is Toxic, Taylor rightly perceives that Gillette is making an appeal to CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in order to enhance its brand. And he hits the nail on the head:

While corporate social responsibility appeals can be effective, corporations must be sensitive to the potential of consumers being skeptical of their motives, or not wanting to be told how to behave by a profit-motivated company.

Taylor goes on to add that “Politically charged language should be avoided by advertisers.”

I would put it this way: politically charged language is the language of advocacy, not business. It is intentionally provocative. Is it your company’s intention to jump into the middle of a social issue and risk driving away (a portion of) your customers with a social responsibility message?  Is there a segment of your current customer base that you simply do not want buying your products? Or is your company choosing a CSR message in an attempt to heighten its brand short term – in effect attempting to predict and align with winners in the battle of social change?

One really hard question to ask ourselves: am I really a leader, or am I a follower? Is my company trying to positively affect change, or capitalize on a changing consumer base? Triple Pundit follows the topic regularly. In a recent article, The Top 5 Brands Taking Stands Stories Continuing into 2019, TP concluded with this observation:

Brands take stands when consumers take stands.

It sounds like brands are – or should be – trying to follow shifts in consumer behavior and values. That deserves some more thought.

Advocacy is advocacy. It is a form of political action. And advocacy is good business – in fact, THE business – for the organizations that want to provoke consumers into action. But is advocacy a sound marketing strategy for your business? Does your business want to be in the business of social change? Gillette isn’t the first company to weigh into the fray of a social issue and find controversy.

As I discussed this first CSR trend with a colleague, she pointed out the example of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. “Wouldn’t all of us have been better off if more companies got behind the Civil Rights Movement earlier?” Great question. And my answer is “yes”. But to Professor Taylor’s point, the important question of how to do that remains for the company to determine. Today, for example, I can point to a half-dozen or more issues that advocates tell me are the ‘new’ Civil Rights issue. Are they? All of them? Would I advise a client to jump into the middle of all of them? No.

My advice to a client would be simple:

If you want to put your brand on the line for a socially responsible issue, then make sure either (a) you do it in a way that is uplifting and not controversial to the point that it drives away customers – the very people you want to influence, by the way; or (b) be prepared to stay committed even if you lose customers, market share, revenue and shareholder value.

Otherwise, don’t cheapen CSR with a bad marketing decision because consultants tell you that advocacy is the latest marketing or CSR trend. We can do better.

An alternative approach: Signature Partnerships

What can a company that is looking to align brand with purpose do in place of advocacy? Answer: create a Signature Partnership.

Through Signature Partnerships, companies partner with charities and causes to which they want to commit their brand … long term. For nearly two generations, for example, many of our leading American companies aligned with United Way. Remember those NFL ads? Supporting the mission ‘one campaign in the workplace,’ companies partnered with United Way to support boots-on-the-ground charities helping our neighbors in greatest need. United Way, however, is not the only example of company brands aligning with charity missions.

Each summer, Dairy Queens everywhere raise money in support of Children’s Miracle Network. Have you shopped in a grocery store where you were asked if you would like to give a dollar to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?

Nor are Signature Partnership programs just food for the Fortune 500. Specialty retailer Box Lunch partners with Feeding America, providing for a free meal through a Feeding America food bank for every $10 spent by its customers. Co-branding via a Signature Partnership program can be good for businesses of all sizes.

CSR Trend 2. Measure everything CSR

Measuring the impact of your CSR programs is important. Figuring out how to do it and where to start can be a challenge. CSR professionals like Katie Emrick of Signet often share blueprints like this one for getting started, prioritizing objectives like calculating a CSR ROI. But let’s admit it: we can measure more. In fact, the engineer or CFO in all of us wants to measure everything.

Since we cannot measure what we do not know, the CSR field has been moving towards ever better software platforms to capture, track and report on an ever wider range of CSR-related activities. From an earlier time where we focused on facilities management and sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility now tracks and measures much more: giving programs, volunteering, employee engagement, and compliance and liability.

In recent years, the big push has been in employee engagement. A new niche of HRIS SaaS software has arisen that expands our knowledge and management of talent acquisition and retention, employee health and wellness, participation in company-sponsored activities, and much more. Record it online, track it in a database, report on it via a dashboard until we – almost – digitize our entire working existence so that companies can tell how happy we are, how productive we are, and how likely we are to leave.

So here’s the challenge. We are conflicted by competing goals. In the area of employee engagement, we want to recognize the dignity, equality, and opportunity that every employee should experience in our companies. But we run the risk of completely digitizing – and thereby de-humanizing – an employee’s very existence within the company. This in turn exacerbates another trend – fears that corporate America is figuring out how to automate every last job and task that it can. In the area of corporate philanthropy, we are also conflicted. We want to align corporate brands with charitable missions, but we lose sight of whether the priority is to create healthier communities in which to live and work (an indirect, longer term benefit) or to pump up the financial bottom line (direct, short term benefit).

And in the process of trying to measure so much, we run the risk of equating CSR programs with activity keystrokes into a computer.

An alternative approach: Measure in moderation

This is a decision for the C-suite, clearly, but it is worth discussing. Ask yourself what is the true desired outcome of your CSR programs, your CSR investment?

  • Achieve short-term marketing success?
  • Change for the better the way your company operates, permanently?
  • Create a lasting and positive impact on the communities in which we live and work?

Let’s assume the latter. Now what? How do we do that?

First, we need to recognize what we can and cannot achieve. It is extremely difficult for any one company or organization to move the needle on any important social responsibility issue. Why? Because so much is at stake. The problems are so large. The resources being applied to solve the problems are enormous, and sometimes in conflict with each other. Working at United Way in the 1990s, I learned this first hand when my boss challenged me to just look at the numbers. We were focused on opportunities to invest in community impact measurement. And our United Way funded a dozen or more critical social issues in our community. We raised more than $90 million a year.

The problem was this: when compared to the amount of money being spent by local and state governments, the federal government, community and private foundations, etc., our $90 million was simply not enough money to move so many needles. The problems were too complex, involving too many people, neighborhoods and communities. So what did we do?

Answer: United Way prioritized. United Way evolved its business model towards funding fewer social issues, instead focusing on the highest priority opportunities to help our neighbors in need and strengthen our communities. And that is my advice when it comes to measuring your CSR impact.

Prioritize what needs to be measured, do not try to track and measure everything just because you can buy software that does it. Decide what is meaningful to your company and what is not. By prioritizing what you measure, you won’t waste resources or confuse objectives. Your employees will feel less like statistics. Your CSR programs won’t turn into data entry exercises. Measure in moderation.

CSR Trend 3: CSR is the ‘next big thing’ in business

Corporate Social Responsibility is critical to the success of business … now more than ever. More than 2,500 companies worldwide produce Annual CSR Reports. An entire category of companies incorporate as B-corporations. We have media outlets like 3BL and Triple Pundit dedicated to CSR. More and more companies behave like Lunch Box, or Toms, where corporate performance ties directly to social impact.

And on a global scale, companies are learning to manage to new stakeholder demands. ESGs are tracked and becoming a standard for non-financial auditing. The UN’s SDG train left the station and is not looking back. Cone Communication tells us that new generations of consumers demand social responsibility, and Blackrock tells us that investors do too.

CSR really IS the next big thing. So much so that I believe in this alternative …

An alternative approach: CSR is going to die

That’s right. The next big CSR trend that we should all watch out for is the death of CSR.


Let me explain.

I am old enough to remember something called “e-business.” Even better, I was tasked with developing and implementing the first e-business strategy at the United Way of the National Capital Area. It was the 1990s. Something called the Internet was demanding that businesses hire companies to build things called websites on which we would transact business. At UW, we started receiving donations online. Who was every going to make a donation online? Websites had things on the homepage known as counters to show each new visitor how many people had visited the website before you. Yeah, I know.

It did not take long, however, before we realized that as much as we talked about e-business, the term “e-business” was going to go away. Why? Because the very nature of business was changing. Soon, everything I was working on at United Way would be taken for granted because it would just be how we conducted so much of our work. “E-business” would soon just be “business”.

And so lies our destiny with CSR.

Sustainable manufacturing, farming, and operations. Engaging employees with a better experience at work. Delivering on promises for more ethical corporate behavior. “Corporate Social Responsibility” is already becoming the way businesses do business. In fact, and you can quote me on this …

CSR is already dying … dying as a discipline, but thriving within our companies.

Soon we won’t talk about CSR activities like they are something separate and apart from our daily routines. CSR will be embedded into our daily routines. And when that happens, CSR will cease to exist as a discipline within the company, as a “thing”. Even CSR reporting will be handled differently. Annual CSR Reports will also die away. Instead, the most meaningful points of reporting on environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) will be incorporated into every company’s Annual Report.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Bringing it home

I hope I have given you a few things to chew on. If I irritated you, that wasn’t my intention. Thanks for sticking with me to the end.

When we read or hear about the next big CSR trend, I would encourage you to stop and reflect upon how that CSR trend may – or may not – impact your company or organization. Re-evaluate your CSR strategy and investment in light of new information. And ask yourself: “Just because it seems like everyone is jumping off that bridge, do I really want to follow?”

Advocacy can be a touchy subject, because we become personally invested in the issues we advocate for. My advice to companies contemplating an advocacy-driven marketing campaign is to ask yourself the tough questions. Do you want to invest your company’s assets and reputation into the issue at hand? Are you willing to lose marketshare as a result of your commitment? Would it be advantageous to approach the issue or charity as a Signature Program, and dig in for the long term? Will you reverse course if sales fall? And if that answer is ‘yes’, then ask yourself why you are going down this path to begin with.

Measuring stuff is sort of addictive. The more data we can collect, the more want to collect. But test yourself. What do you really need to measure and why? When it comes to people, don’t let the zeal for data collection turn your employees into data inputters and data inputs. When it comes to community impact, focus. In all cases, prioritize. And measure in moderation.

And finally, for my big picture CSR trend, yes, CSR is going to die. That is a good thing. In fact, it cannot get here fast enough for me IF – and I hope I am right – it means that the practice of social responsibility becomes embedded in the way we run our companies and conduct our business. And that would be a very good thing.

Before I close, a last word about Gillette. At the end of Professor Taylor’s article, he makes a very important point. Gillette can recover if it admits the mistake and modifies the campaign. I agree. I also have one additional recommendation. Don’t walk away from the controversy. Show that you are committed to the issue and that the initial ad was not just an attempt to capitalize on current marketing or CSR trends. Stick with it, but do it much better.

As always, thanks for reading. Drop me a note if you’d like to discuss any of these ideas further. Good luck in 2019!