COMMENT: Paul Pellizzari, CSR head at Hard Rock International, says a materiality assessment can help brands to live the purpose they are promoting in high-profile marketing
Social responsibility spans an expansive waterfront: embracing environment, social governance (ESG), philanthropy, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), stakeholder partnerships, community impact, human rights, supply chain sourcing, responsible consumption, or anti-human trafficking, among others.
Not every issue can be communicated equally. How, then, does a brand convey its many impacts on the world in its signature marketing?
The historical reflex to avoid contentious politics due to the risk of offending some people has relaxed. Today, affection and loyalty can accrue to those who hit the right tone and message with their desired and core customers.
When marketing discourses shape our culture and consciousness, you can argue that lifestyle brands can relevantly address politics of the day
Take Smirnoff’s "Don’t drink and debate politics" campaign ahead of the U.S. elections, or the defiant tone of Nike’s 2020 “You Can’t Stop Us” campaign, continuing its promotion of racial justice issues and cultural diversity.
While appealing to emotion, do Smirnoff and Nike campaigns make a material difference to the world? Some might say Nike’s treatment of labour or Smirnoff’s sourcing standards should matter more, but when marketing discourses shape our culture and consciousness, you can argue that lifestyle brands can relevantly address politics of the day. And no one would assert that for Smirnoff, excessive drinking warnings are trivial.
When courting controversial subjects with expensive production and TV media buys, these companies must also ensure they can withstand scrutiny across their operations, suppy chains, and employment realities, because in 2021 perceived “woke-washing” can alight incendiary, brand-killing wrath on social media.
Within any company, commitments originiate with various imperatives that swing widely between compliance and communications. Choices could be driven by: a vision from the CEO and board, concerns of stakeholder, community or employee groups, a crisis, or deliberate strategic alignment with customer strategy.
The best companies answer “why are we doing this?” with a formal materiality analysis, defining which social and environmental impacts matter. Does the top material issue need to be the signature issue? Not necessarily.
If for strategic reasons profiling a less material issue is preferred, that’s fine, provided the big ones are managed credibly. All communication plans need not be equal, but amidst asymmetry, companies sometimes miss a key step: using materiality prioritisation to inform strategic planning that intersects with marketing, and internal and external communications.
A materiality analysis should help map the overall communications plan that plots messaging and audience
Social responsibility can seem easy and obvious, especially when it effectively tells “who we are” stories. But managing component parts can be messy.
Various social responsibility issues touch many people in a company, involving different verticals, functions and departments – from operations, supply chain, compliance, to marketing, government affairs, and communications. When a signature programme is promoted, what efforts cultivate meaning across other initiatives?
To illustrate hypothetically, assume a company chooses (for well-motivated reasons) diversity, equity and inclusion as its signature. Programme accountability likely falls to a senior leader in human resources, supported by communications, marketing and community relations.
To extend the example, assume that the company is vulnerable on environmental sustainability and negative media explodes unexpectedly. Acute communication responses (beyond positive DE&I messages) are needed. But if the company’s environmental action plan is lagging and positioning uncontemplated, strategic and tactical communications responses will scramble.
A materiality analysis should help map the overall communications plan that plots messaging, audience, channel and frequency.
Comms around environmental matters can be tricky at the best of times. The details are technical, and connecting audience emotion to demonstrated long-term success can be ambiguous. Companies who make climate change their signature must strategise carefully.
If you aren’t grounded in an external standard, you can still conduct and internally communicate your own materiality analysis
American Airlines demonstrates a sound and measured approach to communicating greenhouse gas emission reduction. It roots its commitment in the external recommendations and standards from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). Instead of high-profile TV and internet ads, the airline expresses rigour and formal commitment through online CEO interviews and its 2020 report on environmental, social and governance issues.
If, in the hyopothetical example, DE&I gets more glory, what happens to motivation and peformance for those leading environmental sustainability? All functions, no matter what prioirty, must be engaged. As a basic step, communicate the materiality analysis.
If, like American Airlines, your firm subscribes to a big standard, like SASB or others – tell employees about it, regularly, so they see that this time consuming, expensive commitment actively defines the company. If you aren’t grounded in an external standard, you can still conduct and internally communicate your own materiality analysis.
Who is managing the whole social responsibility picture across the company and cohering social purpose throughout? With specific functions – HR, operations, marketing, supply chain – focusing on their respective areas, the company’s social responsibility lead is a good candidate to connect the dots.
This role should drive materiality analysis, using it as a hub to organise networks: a core team of leaders who map and guide contributors across verticals and departments. Working collaboratively, the social responsibility lead can weave related strategies, while allowing many people to shine for their important contributions.
Facilitation is core to his or her skill-set, navigating accountabilities, processes, structures, resource allocations, performance management, and reporting. Tenacity and diplomacy help, too. The “how” of this work is critical, deploying leadership from the middle, based on flexible structures that adapt over time.
Making social responsibility live organisationally is as critical as defining a signature issue
By setting the tone for brand, a signature issue should inform other areas’ communications plans. While that issue may ring the company’s high note, broader purpose must swell and sustain from the counterpoint of other issues, which demand ongoing attention.
Making social responsibility live organisationally is as critical as defining a signature issue. Without employee connection, the latent power of those aspirations fizzle. Deriving “purpose-lift” for your people justifies investment. They need to know you mean it and need to be a living part of it, because like consumers, employees will sniff inauthenticity and tune out when stated commitments are found to be empty.
When a company’s pursuit of purpose succeeds, it can tap a fundamental human need, evoking feelings of significance that transcend a transaction for product or service. That success requires discipline in both defining your cause and executing it with your people.
Paul Pellizzari is vice president of global social responsibility at Hard Rock International. He is the author of two books and many articles on corporate responsibility and has been adjunct faculty at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Main picture credit: Chamille White/Shutterstock
diversity and inclusion EST Smirnoff Nike American Airlines signature advertising SASB