These days, if you want to be a successful multinational company, you need a strong element of CSR activity in your brand building strategy. This is certainly the case in China, where the best marketers are treating CSR campaigns with the same strategic rigor as a sales or new product launch project. Foreign brands have made strong initiatives, but have not achieved the same degree of recognition as local players.

Right now 8 of the 10 top companies in this area are China companies.

Top 10 Companies in CSR Perception:

  1. China Mobile
  2. Haier
  3. Lenovo
  4. Mengniu
  5. Wanglaoji
  6. Yili
  7. Li-Ning
  8. Coca-Cola
  9. Nokia
  10. Nongfu Spring

Results from our face to face study with 1500+ Chinese consumers show that multinationals can learn a thing or two from China Mobile. This local telecom giant leads the way in terms of “CSR Perception”, with 20% of “consumer awareness”, closely followed by white goods company Haier with 14.6%. So what’s the secret behind their success? Local companies know which themes to cash in on.

As a country that suffers year-round natural disasters, Chinese consumers have shown a strong preference for companies who have engaged in some way in disaster relief and donation, which counts as 20% of consumers’ perceptions. Similarly, creating an image of caring for the Chinese consumer is considered almost as equally important, accounting for 17.4%. “Going Green” wasn’t especially high up on the agenda a few years ago, but interestingly enough, since the 12th Five Year Plan and its focus on sustainable development and building a more balanced environment was published, presenting a “green” company image has become more popular.

So what can we learn from China Mobile and other CSR Leaders?  Here are a few suggestions:

Think Long Term – the best CSR initiatives are ones that reflect the long term vision of the company and its role in China, and Mengniu, Kappa and Coca Cola have proved particularly successful in this.  When planning your CSR activity, you need to go beyond typical CSR events and think outside of the box, create experiences which will live long in the memory of the Chinese consumer.

Link to Public Policy – the Chinese government has made some important commitments within each of its Five Year Plans with regards to community outreach, closing the digital divide, and building greater racial harmony. Companies who develop plans that reflect and enhance these initiatives, such as Lenovo’s 1,000 County Drive, Unilever’s Rainbow plan, Li Ning’s Sail class project, all produce better results.

Digital Makes the Difference – with 480m online netizens, socializing your CSR activities is completely essential.  Coca-Cola has done this particularly well with Sina Weibo, Live Positively Weibo, and so has Yili’s Green Society Sina Weibo.

Invest in Measurement – a CSR campaign that is not measured will always be one with limited success. You must set KPI’s in advance and invest in the tools to track them.

We’re beginning to see market leaders building up impressive learning and benchmarking in the area of CSR activities in China. And it is only by being specific on the outcomes of these activities and setting KPI’s that will enable marketers to really learn about the influence and impact of their work.

Sunny Chen is a consultant at R3, a Beijing based consultancy focused on marketing efficiency and effectiveness.