Corporate social responsibility: Rules of Engagement

Brands that decide to associate themselves with social issues are increasingly going it alone. Tania Mason reports.

It used to be that when a commercial brand wanted to give something back, or boost its reputation in the eyes of its customers, it hitched up with a well known charity. The formula was simple: the brand stuck the charity's logo all over its products, donated a small percentage of the purchase price to said charity, and all sides were happy. The charity got some cash, the brand was seen as compassionate, and even the consumer was left with a warm glow. Think Help the Aged and British Gas, Comic Relief and Mr Kipling, the British Heart Foundation and Shredded Wheat.

But look closely at the next wave of initiatives designed by companies to score points on whatever corporate social responsibility index they subscribe to, and you'll see the rules of engagement have changed. Nowadays, when commercial brands attach themselves to a social issue, they'll very often do it by themselves. Or, if they do choose a charity partner, it's less likely to be a high-profile name.

Take Persil's Arts and Crafts for Schools initiative. It's been running for three years with a different name each year. Look closely at a box of Persil tablets adorned with campaign insignia. You won't find any charity logo. Even though Persil's partner since the campaign's inception has been Drawing Power - the Campaign For Drawing, it's a fairly safe bet that your average Persil customer doesn't know that. A Persil spokeswoman admits: "We don't so much use its logo, but it uses ours."

Kraft Foods also made sure it wouldn't be overshadowed by any well loved charity in its Health for Schools campaign, which aims to promote healthy lifestyles to pupils. It has chosen to team up with the charity Learning Through Landscapes, which works with schools to develop outdoor spaces for learning and play. The charity is undoubtedly a fine organisation - but it's hardly an equal partner to brands as famous as Dairylea, Philadelphia and Terry's Chocolate Orange. Joanna Lavender, Kraft's corporate affairs manager, says: "Learning Through Landscapes has experience of working with schools, teachers and pupils to help students make changes for themselves.

We have worked with the British Nutrition Foundation and have our own qualified nutritionists, so we didn't feel that we needed an additional big-name charity partner."

Going it alone

Walkers Crisps is another case in point. Last year, just as the UK's obesity crisis reached fever-pitch in the media, the good folk at Walkers decided to launch a project to get people walking more. They ran TV ads encouraging people to log on to their website and order a free Walk-o-meter - a little device that clips on to your belt and records how many steps you take. Walkers recommends that people take 10,000 steps a day.

An obvious partner for this campaign would have been the British Heart Foundation, which, at about the same time, launched a campaign called The Big Red Fightback. One of the aims of this campaign was to get people walking more - getting off the bus a stop early, for example, or taking the stairs instead of the lift. The link couldn't have been clearer. But it wasn't to be.

"Because we are trying to promote physical activity with the Walk-o-meter, and it is not a purchase-related initiative, so there is no money being raised, I don't think a charity partner ever came into the equation," says a Walkers spokeswoman.

Jean Collingwood, chief executive of social marketing agency The Ingenious Group, says "companies don't need the respectability that charities used to bring them". One reason for this, she suggests, is the rise of ethical brands, such as Cafe Direct, Howies, or Innocent Drinks, that conduct business in a sustainable way and promote this in their marketing. Collingwood believes that they have blurred the line between charity brands and commercial brands, so that affiliation with a charity doesn't have the same draw it once did.

Giles Gibbons, founding partner of social marketing agency Good Business, agrees that the nature of charity-corporate partnerships is changing.

He says companies are realising that partnerships inherently dilute any benefit derived from a campaign: "If the company does it by itself, then more of the brand value will come back to it."

He also says companies have realised that if they want to change the way they are viewed, they must do it themselves. "Otherwise people just think you are paying someone else to do it for you," he says.

This might explain the campaigns by Walkers and Kraft, which have been under the spotlight in the wake of the growing debate about obesity. But Gibbons also believes that brands as well established and confident as Walkers don't need the kudos of a charity partner. "There is a recognition that crisps aren't great for you, but people still like Walkers," he says.

Linking with a charity can bring risks. Cadbury's is a confident, established brand with an enviable record on corporate responsibility. But that didn't stop the chocolate manufacturer getting stung over its Get Active partnership with the Youth Sport Trust a couple of years ago. Hardy's, the wine producer, also came in for flak over its £50,000 donation to the Breast Cancer Campaign.

Collingwood believes the risk of bad publicity is definitely making corporates more wary of charity tie-ups: "They understand the level of scrutiny they will be under and how big the risk is of getting it wrong."

Assessing the risks

Even approaching a charity with an offer can be perilous, if the charity decides the brand doesn't fit its ethical policy and the press gets hold of it. Witness Breakthrough Breast Cancer's rejection last year of a £1m partnership with Nestle. "It is almost becoming a source of pride on the part of charities to say 'we've been approached by this big bad company and decided to turn them down'," says Collingwood. She warns the trend may damage the entire sector in the long run.

And she is also concerned about the high rate of staff turnover at charities.

"I suspect the people on the commercial side get fed up with having to keep getting to know new people all the time," she says.

However, Mallen Baker, development director at Business in the Community, doesn't feel it is the risk of things going wrong that puts companies off. He believes it is more to do with the size of a company and how many people it wants to reach.

"Some companies want to achieve real scale and it is easier to get that kind of scale through institutions such as schools," he says.

Baker suggests that global companies often can't find a charity partner with the same global reach. He points to McDonald's World Children's Day in 2002 with Unicef as its partner. By 2004, McDonald's was running the event by itself. "McDonald's wants to do something that fits its global footprint and the partnership with Unicef was a stab at achieving that, but it didn't quite do it," says Baker.

Gibbons floats the theory that as corporate social responsibility has developed, so cause-related marketing has diminished: "Real CSR is a more sophisticated system, if it is really about changing what companies do in a socially responsible way. Cause-related marketing is the bluntest, most unsophisticated tool. It is the wrong place to start."

He says the best partnerships result from companies trying to add something of value to their offering, rather than trying to correct a negative perception.

Two examples he cites are Leonard Cheshire's Visable campaign, which set out to get more disabled people featured in advertising campaigns, and Teach UR Mum 2 Txt, a tie-up between O2 and Milly's Fund, which aimed to improve communication between parents and children (See case study).

Added value

The Visable campaign helped achieve the charity's goals by getting advertisements to reflect more accurately a society where 20 per cent of people have a disability, and by helping companies improve their record on diversity.

The O2 campaign enabled parents to keep better tabs on their children - an objective of the safety charity - and also got more people text-messaging, a goal of any mobile phone business. However, O2's head of corporate responsibility Simon Davis insists this was never a motive.

Gibbons explains: "Charities must understand what CSR is, how it affects organisations and how they can help an organisation deliver its objectives in a way that also delivers the charity's objectives."

One area where cause-related marketing is growing is in partnerships that are primarily fundraising initiatives. Business in the Community's cause-related marketing tracker is growing year on year, and the British Heart Foundation's head of corporate fundraising, Douglas Rouse, reports: "We've never been busier. Lots of companies are opening their doors for conversations". His counterparts at other charities are also examining CRM more closely, he says.

Rouse agrees that public focus on obesity has led companies to look at promoting healthy lifestyles, making the charity a popular choice of partner.

But the foundation stipulates that any ally must align with a healthy lifestyle - so a tie-up with Walkers would have been out of the question.

And therein lies the one point that all those working in the cause-related marketing arena agree on, and one which will never change: that the consumer must be able to see clearly the fit between the cause and the product.

As Baker advises: "Consumers still have strong support for cause-related marketing where they can see an obvious link."

Milly's Fund was established in 2002 by Sally and Bob Dowler to promote personal safety among young people after their daughter Milly was abducted and murdered.

The fund had a Charity of the Year partnership with O2 in 2003. The idea for the campaign came out of a brainstorming session to find ways in which the company could contribute to the partnership beyond employee fundraising.

Sally Dowler had mentioned that she kept in contact with her daughter Gemma by text message - Gemma would discreetly send her mum a text when out with friends. "This was a very simple message to get across in a Milly's Fund campaign," said Simon Davis, O2's head of corporate responsibility.

The campaign, which was launched during the UK's Personal Safety for Families Day on 13 October 2003, encouraged children and their parents to get together and learn how to text. The Teach UR Mum 2 TXT booklet contained texting tips for mums, texting slang, useful phrases and safety tips.

More than 100,000 booklets were distributed in the first six weeks of the campaign and demands for more have been received from more than 30 charitable organisations and schools throughout the UK, including the NSPCC. O2 volunteers handed out booklets at shopping centres in six UK regions and offered shoppers practical advice on texting and personal safety. More than 200 people turned up at each 'text clinic' for a 10-minute texting lesson.


- 160 press stories were generated, seven of them in the national news, including a double-page spread in The Sun and a front page story in The Times

- 23 television reports were aired

- 104 radio reports were broadcast

- The value of the coverage, in advertising terms, was calculated at £2.5m

- Milly's Fund continues to distribute Teach UR Mum 2 Txt booklets to charities, education authorities, schools and individuals


- Ensure there is a clear link between the cause and the brand or product

- Ensure your corporate partner is not trying to counter any negative perceptions of the company or its products

- Find an idea that will help both partners deliver their objectives

- If you are planning a fundraising campaign, make it easy for the customer to find out what benefit each party derives from the tie-up

- Try to maintain continuity of staff for a campaign.

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