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Six Keys For Walking the Corporate Citizenship Talk

Posted by: Tom Zara on August 13, 2013
Corporate Citizenship

Nigeria recently issued a standard for social responsibility practices, helping businesses streamline Corporate Citizenship efforts. This announcement heralds a movement toward global adoption of common standards to guide the development of best practices in CSR.

The news bolsters the expanding agenda of shared value in all economies of the world. This strong and visible endorsement of Corporate Citizenship and CSR reminds us that while progress is made, much remains to be accomplished.

We are reaching new plateaus of achievement. The buoyancy of global commerce, social justice and economic stability have returned to many regions of the world, contrasting with persistent threats of financial Armageddon, the civil discord of the Arab Spring and years of economic anemia. We are facing a dawn of renewed optimism.

Global markets are cresting above historical highs and consumer confidence rises with determination and perseverance. This is the bright and hopeful context for the next chapters of growth and global prosperity. It was also the context of the Interbrand Corporate Citizenship Summit conducted at the Harvard Club earlier this summer and attended by an audience and participants passionate about sustaining the recent momentum of progress.

The theme of this year’s conference examined the lessons and actions we can take to create greater equilibrium between the forces of financial prosperity and the pressing need for greater social equality. The gap that divides the consequences of capital achievement and the plight of social inequity invites a wide range of interested leaders that are bound by a common desire to leave the world a better place than we found it. In the quest to better understand the barriers to sustainable progress in achieving expanded social good, we assembled a diverse collection of high performers in the private sector, NGOs and not-for-profits to share and teach the lessons they’ve learned in increasing the impact of Corporate Citizenship.

Looking back on the conference, six key insights emerged. Listed here, we can all apply these in our daily quest to walk the talk of citizenship in the organizations we run and the lives that we live.

Action lags rhetoric

The plethora of headlines touting the increased evidence of commitment to Corporate Citizenship broadcast strong advocacy for change. In corporate boardrooms, in consumer attitudinal studies and shareholder communications the fervor for change is growing. However, actual behaviors do not always match stated intensions. A closer more acute examination must be initiated to better understand this persistent gap between intentions and actions. We still have far to go to close the gap.

Storytelling meets strategy

The investment, the tools and the resources being deployed to measure the impact of Corporate Citizenship on the performance of businesses is growing progressively. Integrated reporting, fund rankings, product reputations and NPS all support the relevancy of CSR and citizenship. The poignancy of the data demands the potency of an effective narrative. The imagination of the marketplace will and does respond to powerful storytelling, which will grow in importance and grow in presence as brands and organizations commit to greater visibility and greater support of the brand message.

Odd bedfellows

Effective change comes from the unique alchemy of unexpected ingredients. No longer is it deemed sufficient to “go it alone” when brands leverage their reputation, their equity and their customer loyalty to solve a social challenge. It is often NGOs and not-for-profits who are the arms and legs of for-profit brands creating sustainable and differentiated change. The social integrity of the NGO and the commercial integrity of for-profit brands bond critical factors that in combination drive new perceptions and invites new behaviors. Success is finding the balance of skills, brands and structures to unleash good intentions with powerful actions.

Behavioral change is science not chance

The contribution of behavioral science to the strategy of Corporate Citizenship is more pressing than ever. We’re riding a wave of popular consent for Corporate Citizenship, but a gap of commitment persists. Adopting behavioral change is no small task. We are creatures of habit, and our social, political and economic past greatly influences our future behavior. Academia has made significant contributions to the science of behavioral change and we must all become students of resident knowledge before we can be teachers.

Authenticity is key

We live an age when cynicism often fuels the dialogue around brands and hypocrisy is quickly exposed. The lack of trust for financial institutions and political platforms raises consumer perceptions of fraud. Being authentic, knowing what it means to be authentic and finding partners, causes and actions that are true to your core invites success. Any deviation is quickly detected, and consumers will make their voices heard and shift loyalty in a world where choice is abundant.

Perception is reality

The consumer owns your brand. The power of self-determination has moved from the maker to the user in our world of access and transparency. How a brand behaves, how a brand speaks and how a brand engages the public forms a perception that defines the brand’s reality. As a consequence, it’s a paramount responsibility and the owner’s obligation to insure that the gap between performance and reputation is razor thin. Reputation exceeding performance will invite hyperbole, which in the world of sustainability is green washing. Conversely, good performance under-valued because of a weak reputation belies the potency and relevancy of the good the brand is actually delivering.

Tom Zara is the Global Practice Leader for Corporate Citizenship.

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