What is a responsible business now?

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Citizens expect brands to lead the way on Corporate Social Responsibility. Jox Petiza and Alecia Caldwell explain how to do just that.

Sustainability is inextricably linked to global issues of poverty, equality, and social justice. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals reflect these intersections with the aim to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. As for businesses, they now talk about ESG (environmental, social, governance), integrating different initiatives to address wide-ranging issues but if they fail to properly transform to be sustainable and inclusive, they risk their bottom line.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now proven as a driving force that helps companies to thrive.

Data shows that companies with effective CSR programmes are more profitable (The Torrey Project) and sustainable brands – as defined by Kantar – grow six times faster. When a company’s stance on CSR is effectively communicated, it influences consumer behaviours, with a five-point improvement in reputation translating directly into a 5% increase in propensity to buy (RepTrak).

There are also impressive talent benefits - 64% of millennials would not work for a company that does not have a good record on sustainability, while there is a 26 – 50% reduction in staff turnover for firms with a better CSR profile (Deloitte).

The pressure to change is only getting stronger. As both climate change and inequality issues are being brought into sharper focus, consumers are expecting more from businesses and are demonstrating that they will act when they feel a company is doing well or doing badly.

Across markets, citizens place an emphasis on purpose-driven purchase decisions, according to Wunderman Thompson’s Regeneration Rising survey:

  • 86% think companies should be more inspiring when it comes to sustainability issues.
  • 86% expect businesses to play their part in solving big challenges.
  • 75% say responses to COVID-19 have raised expectations for businesses to help fight some of our world’s biggest problems.

Three aspects of CSR

Typically, CSR issues fall into three core areas: sustainability, diversity and inclusion (D&I), and social justice. Across these three areas, businesses may have to be adaptable to deal with local priorities that can vary from country to country.

Within China, for example, the public discourse around renewable energy and electric vehicles is hugely pertinent, given air pollution is a major issue affecting everyone’s daily life. By contrast, diversity and inclusion remains relatively novel in China, with rules against sexual discrimination only recently being built into law within China's 2021 Civil Code. In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore issues of social disparity – so the topic of social justice is a powerful one.


When it comes to sustainability in marketing, making media buys more sustainable has been essential. For example, MediaCom has helped Centrica, the parent company of British Gas and Hive, reduce the carbon impact of its media delivery, by offsetting its CO2 footprint via high impact projects within Kenya and Uganda. This has allowed the organisation to generate carbon savings and, at the same time, positively impact local communities through investing in efficient cooking and clean water.

Sustainability is indeed more than simply environmental protection. There is a multiplicity of issues at play in this complex space: raw materials and supply chains are fundamental to effecting change, but communications have a role to play within this, with media buys able to contribute to sustainability efforts.

The breadth of the sustainability topic is creating a complex comms landscape for brands to navigate. However, with more ways to effectively measure and track a business’s impact, starting with the carbon impact of media delivery, it is possible to build a sustainable marketing approach.


Diversity and inclusion are increasingly fundamental principles across organisations and societies, and in many markets, these values are built into law. Data from Google shows that 64% of Americans are more likely to consider, or even purchase, a product after seeing an ad they think is diverse or inclusive, and this is even stronger for people who feel advertising positively reflects their own race/ethnicity.

Critical to successfully dealing with D&I issues is the need to shift from statements to actions. To fulfil this need, brands can move the needle from culture riding, towards culture sharing, to finally, culture imprinting, which can push long-term social change.

Culture riding is where a brand leverages trending themes; culture sharing is where a brand reinforces change - Tiffany & Co opted for culture sharing by entering the male engagement ring market to meet the needs of gay men (Google Trends shows that the concept of men’s engagement rings are up 153% year-on-year); culture imprinting is where a brand actively campaigns for change, with the vociferous activism of Patagonia being a classic example.

As Kevin Simler, co-author of The Elephant in The Brain, puts it: “Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.”

Social justice

Social justice is about taking a genuine stand. We are increasingly marketing in an age of activism and consumers are relying more on brands than governments to solve social problems.

There are plenty of examples of brands who have spoken out: from Uber’s Delete Uber campaign, to Ben & Jerry’s Resist flavours. The bottom line is that silence or neutrality is no longer acceptable - 70% of consumers want to know what the brands they support are doing to address social issues.

The issue of social media and hate speech is a particular risk in this area for brands, as 64% of consumers believe a brand is responsible for addressing harmful content that appears near their posts.

MediaCom is currently assessing the level of risk associated with paid spend, so that clients can evaluate and track their Responsible Social Media Score to better develop risk-conscious media plans and develop avoidance strategies in real-time.

Brands that are prepared will have a clear and consistent social mission, one that addresses problems they are uniquely equipped to solve. They will work with external partners to boost their credibility in the chosen space. Most importantly, they will follow through their commitments with action, including investing in brand spend to raise awareness of both the issue and its relationship with the company’s products and services.

CSR affects everything

CSR is no longer a siloed function. It affects everything a brand does. To build a sustainable business, CSR should be integrated into a company-wide pursuit across business functions, including marketing.

How to be a responsible business now:

  • Sustainability: Make media buys core to sustainability efforts.
  • Diversity & Inclusion: Turn mission statements into actions by imprinting impact in culture.
  • Social justice: Silence or neutrality are no longer an option. But to be an ally requires authenticity and vulnerability.

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