Becoming a Socially Responsible Brand takes teamwork.

For decades, the decision to be an environmentally and socially responsible company has been based on the bottom line: Would it be profitable? In general, companies have crunched the numbers and chosen shareholder profits over a sufficient commitment to invest in greater social responsibility. In terms of traditional accounting and the legal requirements of corporations, costs always outweighed benefits.

But it now seems that this equation is starting to lean the other way as brands recognize the potential financial and reputational advantages they can gain by engaging with consumers around the shared ambition of building a better world…

We can see this already happening among some leading brands such as Pepsi, Google, Nike, Patagonia and Starbucks, who have all earned consumer respect for their involvement in some area of environmental or social responsibility related to their business.

How did this come about? In large part, it is because the payoff for corporate engagement with customers has risen dramatically as a result of social media. The new dynamics between brands and consumers, driven by social media, are proving to be a powerful impetus for change.

It begins with brands recognizing that, in the future, they must position themselves to win customers by offering them a vision of a better world and inviting them to help achieve it by co-creating the brand’s story. As the brand’s customers become loyal fans, they use their social networks to spread the word about that brand, driving even more new fans to join in. This dynamic may have its initial upfront costs, but it pays off in the end through an extended global audience of buyers and fans.

Transforming a brand into a socially responsible leader doesn’t happen overnight by simply writing new marketing and advertising strategies. It takes effort to identify a vision that your customers will find credible and aligned with their values. The company must learn how to engage its consumers with authenticity and transparency, using social media to create a meaningful dialogue. Finally, it must beat back the forces resisting change, including opponents among shareholders and management fighting to preserve short-term rewards for themselves.

The Seven Stages

The process of becoming a brand leader in the next decades will be an evolutionary one involving at least seven stages. Each stage is defined by its unique leadership style, brand vision, social media commitment and level of engagement with the brand’s customer base:

  • Unsustainable corporate self-interest: This is where most organizations sit today. They donate to philanthropy or practice some type of cause marketing but they largely define their success in terms of monetary returns for shareholders.
  • Self-directed engagement: A growing number of organizations are moving up to this stage, recognizing that changing their social responsibility profile can earn benefits. But most of their outreach efforts at this stage are still done for image management in the public eye. They are still motivated mostly by self-interest and the desire to avoid bad publicity.
  • C-suite reflection: In this stage, the corporate leaders of the brand begin to reflect deeply on their vision for the brand. A few leaders among them will put together a proposal for the company’s future based on fulfilling greater social responsibility benchmarks.
  • Consumer facing self-interest: At this stage, the brand begins moving toward an authentic commitment to socially responsible behavior. However, it still fails to make all of its consumer-facing outreach consistent. As a result, consumers (and employees) often experience a disconnection between what the company says it stands for and its actions, including its supply chain and the products and services it offers.
  • Self-directed reform: Here, a brand examines the details of its mandate — its core values, purpose and consistency of its messaging. It starts making serious changes such as changing suppliers, imposing strict ethical standards and hiring new leadership to reformulate its vision. These changes are mostly unseen by the public.
  • Brand leader: At this stage, the corporation embraces the need to share stewardship of their brand with their consumers. It recognizes the need to be transparent, accountable, and authentic. The brand endeavors to become a pacesetter for others in its socially responsible behavior. Its employees rank it as a great place to work, watchdog groups give it high marks as a responsible company, and consumers hold it up as a leading purveyor of positive social impact, by talking about the brand in their blog posts, tweets, and across their social networks.
  • Brand visionary: In this final stage, the brand is well respected for carrying a strong, long-term vision of a better world that it seeks to bring to fruition. It quiets shareholders who clamor only for short-term profits. It conducts a regular dialogue with its consumers, who willingly co-create the brand’s story, while being loyal fans of the brand and driving its profits. In achieving this brand visionary status, its customers form a global synaptic network that is always in support not just of its products but also the core values of the brand, which become meaningful in their lives.

  • The opportunity for many of today’s companies to become true socially responsible brand visionaries is available, but only if they want it, and ask their customers for help. Indeed, if we consider the online reach of companies like Facebook and Twitter, the offline reach of companies like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Walmart, and the fervent consumer loyalty that companies like Apple, Nike and Patagonia inspire, it’s easy to imagine how a web- and social-savvy population could coerce these companies — and any others who want to follow their example — into becoming the leading global brand visionaries of the future.