THE BLOG

Is Innovation the New Donation?

02/18/2014 03:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

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From social media to e-commerce, business has gone through many transitions over the last ten years. We have seen brands adapt to become content publishers, app developers and sustainable operators. The next big change we are starting to see is a shift in the way a brand gives back. Its no longer just about publicity photos with oversized checks, the momentum is behind businesses applying their innovation assets to get their hands dirty solving real problems and often communicating a much more powerful message to their customers in the process.

The Evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

The traditional product, service or cash donation to a worthy cause simply isn't meeting consumer's expectations for corporate social responsibility any longer. They now expect a more active interest in the core issues facing our world. After years of brands working to get closer to their customers, of becoming more human and seeking to be a part of lives in every way, the consumer now expects their most loved brands to move the human race forward. While this might not be at the top of immediate shareholder's minds, companies will risk becoming irrelevant if they avoid it.

The world needs solutions more than ever and as consumers demand it from them, brands will have further motivation to adjust their approach to charitable donations.

Brands and Cause Based Innovation

We used to look to our governments to find cures and take us to the moon but we are seeing a move towards the Fortune 500 playing that role, they are often equipped with the most advanced innovation departments and armed with a large portion of the top tier talent.

To compete today, brands need to constantly define their value in the world. Consumers buy products that make them feel better and improve their lives, but purchase behavior is now being influenced strongly by a brand's vision. A Cone Cause Evolution Study found 83 percent of Americans say they wish brands would support causes, and 41 percent have bought a product because it was associated with a cause. That figure has doubled since 1993.

The most loved and valuable brands in the world are often most innovative. Looking at Interbrand's Best Global Brands report we see Coca Cola, Apple, IBM and Google at the top. Brands that we can all agree have been strong innovators over the last decade and have experienced the upside of innovating everywhere within their organization. But it's not just a vision about innovation within their segment, the next big opportunity for brands is applying their innovation resources and process to help tackle some of the big ugly issues facing the world.

The Changing Role of Brands in Our Lives

Over the last ten years businesses have been on a quest to humanize, to become closer to customers and more relevant within our culture. This changing role is leading consumers to ask not only, 'How can you make my life better?' they are asking 'What are you building to make the world better?' After all, brands have redefined their most loved industries, consumers will expect the same results in other areas of the world.

Transparency

At a point where everything a company does can be accessed by the public, where every new product is reviewed even before it hits the market, and the production process is available to anyone that wishes to inquire, brands can't just rely on an image they have built up over decades of marketing spend, they have to live it day to day, they have to find ways to take an active and valuable part in the world.

The Payoff

Brands crave the positive reactions and groundswell movements that are commonly achieved with cause marketing. Nonprofits need the pervasive innovation that allows leading companies to continually disrupt and stay ahead of competitors. Brands are understandably hesitant to become responsible for the worlds problems, but the upside of deeper involvement is considerable.

In the next few years expect a handful of brands to make bold moves to do more than give, and watch others struggle to catch up. Imagine if a company was able to use its patents and 10 percent of their engineer's annual time to provide a product that greatly improved clean water access. When the innovations they create start hitting the world, the benefit to its brand could out weigh even the smartest marketing campaign.