I'm not going to lie to you. Like most consultants, I spend most of my unbillable time conjuring up T.V. pilots. I would like to sell a T.V. show. Even more than that, I would like to deliver an Emmy speech. Not the daytime Emmys. The real ones.
So here's my latest idea: Beautiful and well dressed young professionals, armed only with imagination and conviction, drive around some unspecified sunny city in a late-model hybrid with a Bono bobble head on the dashboard. Their mission; convincing CEOs and other senior managers of the wisdom of undertaking Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs specifically related to their company's corporate competencies. Inevitably, the "suits" demur. At the end of each episode, DNA samples from the executives are brought back to the lab only to find, time and time again, they are missing the gene for peripheral vision.
The working title? CSR: Myopia
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BP or Not BP? That Is Not The Question
When it comes to understanding the opportunity to devise programs that focus corporate expertise on critical customer and community concerns, Corporate America has been a little slow on the uptake. And even though it should have no bearing on the discussion, BP's fiasco in the Gulf is likely to have a chilling effect on companies' inclination to proactive, business-focused and socially responsible programming. That's unfortunate.
There are errors of commission, omission, and in the context of this discussion, emission (BP may have hit the trifecta). Still the biggest failure of big business is a failure of vision: its inexplicable inability to understand that by aligning your expertise and competencies with the concerns of your customers you can make money and make the world a better place at the same time. Not only can you do so, that's what consumers want you to do.
But you cannot merely proclaim your alignment; you must work hard and smartly and proactively every day to demonstrate it. It is not a competition of words but of informed actions. Companies must become forceful, innovative and visible advocates on issues that are meaningful to their customers and logically linked to corporate expertise and competencies. Or as my cousin the chiropractor says, "Alignment is as alignment does." And the funny thing is that if you do that, consumers will reward you with their business.
Our agency, Tiller, has been creating and delivering innovative and business-aligned corporate responsibility platforms for the last eight years. While there has been some progress, whatever you call these initiatives -- CSR, cause marketing, affinity marketing, advocacy marketing -- they remain too low of a priority at too many corporations. We can't change business' attitudes towards these programs fast enough. Talk about sustainability -- a system that puts customer interest and profitability at loggerheads, now that's not sustainable.
Hey, Corporate America, what part of enlightened self-interest don't you understand?
A Summer Thinking List
Of course, it's easy to be critical of Corporate America. In fact, it's almost fashionable. In fact, it's kind of fun. But the truth of the matter is that all of us -- consumer, business leader, nonprofit, NGO, addled-script-writing CSR consultant -- are complicit in a collective failure to bring consumer, community and corporate interests together in closer and more mutually beneficial ways.
So as we head into the dog days of summer and contemplate how we will behave when we cool down and re-engage with the world this fall, let me offer the following challenges for your consideration:
Note to Business: Profitability and social concerns are not an either/or proposition. The challenge is finding causes and issues at the nexus of customer concern and organizational expertise -- and then doing something about them in meaningful, sustained, and high-impact sorts of ways. Think Pedigree and the issue of pet adoption or Scholastic and child literacy or Kraft Foods and hunger in America. Senior managers need to understand the opportunity to focus their organization (if even only a little more) on issues that can make a difference - for the bottom line, for the brand, and for humankind. Raise the bar for your employees. Challenge them to identify unmet or under-addressed customer concerns that relate to your corporation's expertise and offerings and to devise programs that make a difference.
Note to Nonprofits/NGOs: The first place nonprofits should look is inward. A little soul searching never hurt anybody. What are we good at? What qualities do we manifest? Who are we serving? Most importantly, where are the greatest unmet or emergent needs? Then develop innovative programs and sponsorship opportunities that powerfully bring together your core competencies with a critical need and market them aggressively to corporations for whom they make particular sense. In that regard, check out this broadcast story from The Wall Street Journal Report on the ING/Girls Inc. Investment Challenge or read this story from CNN.com on a New York Life and Comfort Zone Camp partnership formed to help kids who've lost a loved one. The task of imagining should not fall strictly to business.
Note to Consumers: Consumers, in fact, have the greatest power of all to affect corporate behaviors. It's called a wallet. The best way to demonstrate that power is to hold companies accountable for their pronouncements and to patronize those companies that are actively and earnestly trying to make a difference for you. Don't reward clever advertising; reward conviction and alignment of interest. And while corporations may not listen to bloggers (though they are improving in that regard), they are generally pretty good about listening to you, their customer. Got an idea -- share it. You'd be surprised how many good ideas originated with a note to the CEO.
Note to Me: Re-energize and recommit to carrying the CSR banner. Stop wasting your time on non-sensical T.V. show story lines that will never see the light of day, and put away that treatment for American Idyll, a hilarious, breakthrough show about daydreaming consultants.