There was a time 30 or so years ago when, like many college students, I distrusted big business. Of course I had absolutely no basis in fact for that conclusion. It was just that like many, not to our credit, I thoughtlessly accepted the popular wisdom of the day.
Recently, after the Enron, Tyco, and too many other corporate disappointments, one might think I was correct in my original assumption. Perhaps even far-sighted. But over the years, after finally entering the business world myself, I have learned that companies are not Evil Empires. In fact, they are often forces for great good in local communities, the nation, and throughout the world.
And that goes well beyond the expected creation of jobs, products, and services that improve standards of living, and producing profits that reward investors.
Companies support many efforts beyond their stated corporate missions, making profound contributions in education, environmental programs, health, and economic development initiatives. Private companies create opportunities and possibilities for the public good all over the world.
However you probably don’t know that. Because most companies seem to do everything in their power to keep their good acts a secret.
Let me share with you several reasons why this reticence is a bad idea. And why it’s time for more companies to pound their chests, pat themselves on the back, and toot their own horns. It has everything to do with smart business. The time for modesty is over!
Let me also state that this doesn’t have anything to do with the current trend towards corporate transparency. While that is all well and good, most companies now are required to be open concerning core business operations and board activities. What I’m talking about are things that often occur out of the spotlight. After hours. That’s when the good stuff happens. That’s the activity that needs to be publicized, or better yet, advertised.
My premise is that corporate image advertising is a public relations tool for the modern professional. Most traditional advertising is aimed at specific target markets, primarily at consumers or clients you are trying to sell.
Advertising that highlights a company’s good works, or its corporate social responsibility initiatives, can reach a wider audience. Besides customers, that would include the financial community; existing and potential investors, lenders, and analysts. It would include your organization; employees, unions, franchisees, partners and suppliers. And it can also include the community at large; opinion leaders in the media and academia, legislators and regulators.
We all know that information today is available 24/7. News of wrongdoing travels instantly.
So why not spread news of right-doing? If nothing else, it builds a reputation asset that accrues value, and will give you the benefit of the doubt if ever needed. But that’s assuming a negative. There are enough purely positive reasons for letting people know what you do, who you are, what you stand for, and where you are going.
Burson-Marsteller proprietary research indicates that the top ten companies with the best corporate reputations, as measured by both traditional business results and CSR activities, outperform those with the worst reputations.
Tell the story and people are more likely to buy your products, even when they cost more. More likely to tout your stock. More likely to help recruit employees. So, why do so many companies continue to keep their lights under a bushel?
The results in the financial sector can have an even more direct impact on the bottom line. According to Investor Relations Magazine, 42 percent of portfolio managers say corporate image ads have led them to investigate companies for investment potential. And nearly a third of all money managers admit they have bought stock in a company as a result of research that was initiated after reading or seeing a corporate ad featuring a positive story.
Sophisticated investors are even more affected by good corporate image. Nearly half (47 percent) report that a company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen strongly influences their opinion to invest. CSR is even more important to consumers. A vast majority (85 percent) of American consumers say that corporate reputation influences their overall image of a company.
Perhaps even more significant is that 60 percent indicate they will not knowingly purchase products from companies who are not good corporate citizens. This is a vital point. Most marketing budgets far exceed corporate relations budgets – sometimes it seems they spend more on caterers for their TV commercial shoots than they do for corporate image work! But now there is evidence that building the image of the whole not only supports individual product sales, it can also actually protect sales.
Now is the time for marketers and corporate relations folks to get out of their silos and build bridges. It’s a win-win.
Worse, doing nothing could result in a lose-lose. CEOs know this. Our data indicates that fully 60 percent of CEOs say CSR is a priority given the current economic climate. Some 68 percent believe it’s vital to their company’s profitability.
And yet for some reason, too many of those that support active, effective CSR programs don’t let the public know about it. Too many seem to think it’s enough to publish an occasional Citizenship Report, or create a segment on the corporate website. These are good initiatives to be sure. But they’re not nearly enough to get the message out.
To do that, a company needs to reach a mass market. To reach the whole pie most efficiently and economically, you need to advertise. Use print minimally. TV is even better. Don’t despair at the cost. Cable channels can reach the constituencies that matter and cost less than you might think. And CSR messages are perfect for Public Broadcast outlets, which also happen to have audiences full of opinion leaders.
For those who need some further ammunition to make this case with top management, here are some suggested Do’s and Don’ts based on CSR advertising experience with a number of Marsteller clients.
1. Don’t spend more on advertising than you do on charity. Make sure you walk the walk before even thinking about talking the talk.
2. Don’t be shy. Your mother may be proud you have heeded her calls for personal modesty. But what may be appropriate for the individual is not appropriate for the company. When you do something good, tell people.
3. Do make friends with Marketing. Telling the story costs money. Go to where the money is.
4. Do make even better friends with senior management.
These efforts need a corporate champion. The full support of the CEO can have a great impact on CSR. And a solid CSR story can have great impact on CEO reputation.
5. Do support causes that are connected with your core business. Research shows that the public has become cynical over the last few years. They are more inclined to believe and understand corporate support of activities closely related to the company mission. For example, it makes more sense for a water company to support environmental causes than youth sports. Sneaker companies would find just the opposite.
6. Do work with someone who has done this kind of work before. It is easy to look like braggarts when a little finesse can make you look like the heroes you deserve to be. Find an agency that understands the difference between selling a product and selling a company, who knows how to build a brand and build a reputation. To conclude, it’s time for companies to stand like King Kong and beat your chests. Doing the right thing for society is the right thing to do. Letting people know about it is the smart thing to do.
Michael McKenna is president and chief executive officer of Marsteller Advertising New York.