Chris Arnold
Apr 30, 2021

Should marketing or CSR own the purpose agenda?

Is it marketing departments or executives working in corporate social responsibility that should control purposeful messaging?

Should marketing or CSR own the purpose agenda?

As consumers demand more of brands and turn to those that demonstrate values and social responsibility, communicating those values can be critical to winning hearts and minds, gaining loyalty and building brand equity.

The pandemic has forced many brands to refocus back on society and show they care by supporting projects that have a social impact. Meanwhile, concerns over climate change remain, with consumers wanting to see real actions not just rhetoric.

To answer this, I talked to chief marketing officers, corporate communication directors and chief sustainability officers to probe the issue and used an online survey of 100 businesses by community engagement company Connect2, of which I am a founder.

So, how well do the different departments work together, and what are the challenges? And how can purpose-driven marketing avoid becoming purpose wash?

Many agree that to succeed, these departments need to integrate from the start. It can’t just be CSR telling marketing what to say, or marketing doing its own thing.

The challenge this presents is that they both have very different cultures and mind sets. Just 25% of those surveyed say they work well together and trust between the two is not always great, with 10% saying the relationship isn’t good.

In the eyes of some, allowing marketing to manage the purpose agenda in the public space is like “giving your teen kids the keys to your sports car”, in the words of one CSO.

The Connect2 research, carried out in February 2021 with management teams from both disciplines shows that over half of CSR and marketing teams feel that although corporate purpose and brand communications generally run side by side they are not always aligned (68%). Less than a third thought they were aligned, while 13% felt they were actually in conflict.

42% think corporate purpose “sort of” connects with customer values, but needs developing, while 20% are updating it. 25% think the two connect well, while only a small percentage, 6%, think it’s “bang on”.

No room for silo mentality

But if corporate purpose isn’t aligning with consumer values, marketing has to challenge it and redefine the message. After all, marketing is the link between the brand and the customer. 

Almost everyone believes purpose adds value and appeal to the brand, here there is near-universal alignment in thinking. And more than half are investing more in purpose driven marketing.

“With consumers expecting brands to "do good" for society and the environment, it is in our business interest as well as in our values to do that good,” Tamara Rogers, CMO for GSK Consumer Healthcare, comments. She believes that building purpose, with social responsibility, into GSK's brands is critical.

While sustainability is top of the agenda for many chief executives these days, there is little doubt that marketing has to become more CSR-savvy, and CSR needs to be more connected with the customer, which requires both to adapt.

The pandemic has certainly been a catalyst of change. “It fast-forwarded the agenda by two years,” Direct Line chief marketing officer Mark Evans, who now works closely with its head of CSR Lisa Tremble, said. The company reacted quickly to the crisis and created a £3.5m fund to help community initiatives. “There was no room for a silo mentality or power struggles, we were all in this together,” he adds.

O2 recently appointed Will Kirkpatrick in a lead role as head of sustainability and social impact. He brings to the role a background in marketing and a passion for social good which should allow him to translate corporate purpose into brand purpose.

Kirkpatrick believes you have to apply a marketing and commercial mind-set to identify the opportunity between your CSR strategy and your marketing strategy.

"Where are the social issues that your customers care about? Where you can make a meaningful difference with your brand and capabilities? When you get this right you’ll add value for customers and it will make your brand more relevant and salient,” he says.

Virgin Media, in the process of merging with O2, has just launched its five year sustainability plan with a big focus on society, overseen by Jeff Dodds, its chief operating officer. Dodds is also its former CMO and its approach is not just marketing-based, but also focuses on actions.

But while purpose driven marketing may make consumers feel warm and fuzzy, marketing needs it to perform, to drive sales, build loyalty and enhance brand equity.

At the recent WFA leadership conference “Themes for 2021”, Silas Lewis Meilus, GSK’s head of media APAC, said that one of the biggest issues this year was marketing and corporate communications (CSR) aligning their thinking. Consumers are demanding it and the big business challenge was therefore “bringing together purpose and performance”.

Many believe that purpose-driven marketing needs to adopt new rules, with a less heavy handed “in your face” approach. Brands need to engage consumers in a meaningful way, more through actions and customer engagement than simply through big media campaigns. The challenge is - can marketing change its ways?

Getting the metrics right

To do so requires a different methodology to traditional communications to come across as authentic and credible. Years of brands making false promises, exaggerated claims and general green-washing has left consumers untrusting of brands that claim to be doing good, let alone to be saving the planet.

Measurability is another area that creates debate between departments. While some methodologies used by marketing may appear “fluffy” to CSR, who often need to measure a different set of impacts, measuring the RoP (return on purpose) is critical to the business, yet there is no real universally agreed methodology. 

Lisa Basford, formerly of Telefónica and founder of Good Endeavours, says: “We need to look at new and more innovative ways to measure social impact, and to bring together marketing and CSR metrics.”

As brands seek to develop effective purpose-driven marketing there will be tensions between marketing and CSR and a need for both to adapt and see each other’s viewpoint. Both have a critical role in driving the business forward. 

In a recent Marketing Kind seminar, marketing guru Seth Godin said: “Mission statements only become of value to consumers when they become mission actions.” Something for leaders of both CSR and marketing departments to consider in the post-Covid world.

Dr Chris Arnold is the creative director of Creative Orchestra and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer

Campaign UK

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