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When companies campaign

26 September 2013
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It is no longer enough for companies simply to provide a product or a service. Many consumers, employees even shareholders and senior business leaders are looking beyond the bottom line and considering the social purpose of what they do. This is partly because the distance between businesses and the people and groups who have a stake in them, such as consumers, is shrinking through our increasingly social world, in the digital sense.

It not easy for a business to ask itself that most fundamental question –  what’s our purpose? For a significant amount of time the answer was, apart from a relatively small number of outliers, fundamentally the same – to make money.

Businesses are of course still in the business of making money, but increasingly that is not viewed as enough, either by their consumers or the businesses themselves.

Corporate responsibility as a discipline has grown, in part, out of some of this questioning of the value and purpose of businesses. It started really, as essentially a defensive mechanism, to ward off the threat of compulsion and legislations potentially detrimental to business practice by government, or outcry from consumers, customers or employees. No surprise then that it has developed most in areas where a business can show how it is minimising the negative impact of its work – on the environment, suppliers, even on public health. It’s where M&S’s Plan A struck home so successfully when it launched, and where others have been very quick to follow.

B2C businesses have long championed values as part of their brand profile and overall marketing message, but there seems to be growing trend of going beyond having a broadly defined set of values that in most cases primarily relate to how you conduct business. A number of businesses are, shock horror, expressing opinions on social and environmental issues, actively campaigning on such to their consumers and beyond.

Some, such as Neil’s Yard and Co-Op and their campaigns on bees, you might consider the usual suspects – they are businesses who have social purpose in their DNA. But they are increasingly being joined by many new businesses, particularly start-ups. Trendwatching,com recently highlighted the rise of demanding businesses, those putting the pressure on their own customers to be more environmentally and socially conscious, citing one lovely example of a sushi restaurant in Japan that fines customers if they do not finish their meals and donates the money to a fund to support fishermen, with the menu pointing out the dangerous conditions they work in.

Big businesses, perhaps mindful of the reputational risk with suspicious or cynical consumers of going it alone when campaigning on issues, are looking for the protection and opportunity offered by more meaningful partnerships with charities and NGOs. They are looking beyond the traditional fundraising relationship and working with their partners to create positive behaviour change, using their channels and influence to reach out to consumers, as evidenced by the recently launched partnership between Tesco and Diabetes UK.

The public sector is not immune to this either, with the diversification of service providers encompassing businesses, social enterprises and charities alike. When there is a social purpose the the service you are providing, such as healthcare or education, then there is an even stronger incentive to ensure you are being and being seen as a positive and proactive social purpose organisation.

We are likely to see more, and more diverse partnerships across the three sectors over the next few years, and many of them may well bring together some surprising bedfellows. It is not an easy thing to get right, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be serious for all involved. That’s one of the reasons why we have developed  our own partnership service, to help organisations of whatever type to define and communicate their social purpose, brought to life through the right partners –