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3 Ways Brands Can Use Corporate Social Responsibility Principles To Create Better Advertising

A geniune attempt to build trust with an audience–and give a brand a sense of purpose–can be far more effective than traditional ads.

3 Ways Brands Can Use Corporate Social Responsibility Principles To Create Better Advertising
[Illustrations: Petr Strnad via Shutterstock]

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Chipotle taking a stand on factory farming, with an assist from Fiona Apple. Patagonia giving away boatloads of lightly worn clothing. These advertising campaigns all have one thing in common: They take corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles and deploy them in ways that are far more effective than traditional ads.

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In a new report, the firm BSR examines the idea that brands can use these principles to build trust and loyalty among customers. For the most part, they can. Eva Dienel, associate director of communications at BSR, cites a recent study from Cone, where 91% of respondents said they wanted to hear about a company’s social responsibility and progress. “They’re not saying they want a CSR report. They’re saying, ‘We want to hear about this in terms of marketing.’ It’s a deeper connection than old-school marketing,” she says.


In the report, BSR lays out three priority areas for advertisers to focus on: enhancing transparency, audience empowerment, and purpose. Transparency can be a particularly thorny topic for companies. In 2014, McDonald’s launched a campaign called “Our Food, Your Questions,” inviting customers to ask about its food and production processes. Not all of the answers to those questions were appetizing–through the campaign, customers learned that the company still uses azodicarbonamide–a compound used to make yoga mats–in its buns (as do lots of other brands).

“If you open the door a little bit, and all of a sudden you see there’s all this darkness, you need to be able to answer all the questions,” says Dienel.

Participant Media, which commissioned the BSR study, has been more successful on the transparency front. The company’s Pivot TV network has a responsible advertising policy, laid out in simple terms here, that promises to always disclose product placements in its shows, avoid certain topics (like politics, gambling, and sexually exploitative products), co-create ads with partners to tell “inspiring stories,” and take viewer feedback into account.

“The policy is active and engaged every day. It’s an active part of our dialogue,” says Chad Boettcher, head of social action and advocacy at Participant Media. “Sometimes ad policies aren’t publicized or are a little dense. We wanted to summarize key elements of what we believe in a way that audiences could understand.”

Audience empowerment is another key piece of BSR’s study. On a basic level, innovations like the choose-your-own ad experience that online video providers now offer at least give viewers the freedom to tune out irrelevant ads. Companies also need to be ready to respond to customer feedback on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But brands can also empower audiences by letting them talk back.

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On its Worn Wear blog, Patagonia asks customers to share stories about their old Patagonia wear–a particularly clever strategy for the company, which has generations of fans. “It looks like a blog you might read on Outside magazine. You’re getting a much deeper connection with the brand because of what they’re talking about. It’s a fabulous marketing device, getting people to post stuff up there,” says Dienel.

Purpose is the final priority area listed in BSR’s paper, and it may be the most important. Some of the most impressive ad campaigns of the past few years, including some of the ones listed above, are successful because they appear to be backed up by strong values and authenticity. With its anti-factory farming campaign, Chipotle took a stand on an important issue and backed it up with a “Food with Integrity” policy that promises organic, local, and family-farmed ingredients.

“It’s an opportunity to connect to the core of consumers–to say, ‘This is what I stand for,'” says Dienel.

That is, as long as the advertising is genuine. Putting out an insincere purpose-driven ad campaign will almost certainly fail.

Check out BSR’s full report here.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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