Corporate Citizenship in the Networked Marketplace


Today we feature a guest blog post from Scott Henderson. Scott is managing principal of CauseShift, a team of strategists who help clients provoke, connect and market. He has led shifts for a variety of organizations, including P&G, UNICEF and wecanendthis.com, a yearlong, multi-partner initiative to spark innovation and engage more people in the cause of ending hunger in America. Scott is a regular keynote speaker and publisher of rallythecause.com.

The era of the oversized check is over. Showing up for a community relations photo op without altering your operations isn’t enough anymore. In fact, words without action are one of your greatest risks in the networked marketplace.

Your company’s filings with OSHA, EPA, USDA and other federal government agencies have created digital footprints. Customers, employees and activists are talking about you online, and this new generation of word of mouth isn’t contained by time or distance. Sooner rather than later, this mosaic of information will be available to everyone—investors, customers, regulators, employees and competitors alike.

Are you ready for the greater intimacy and immediacy that the networked marketplace demands? More specifically, are you ready for how the networked marketplace expects you to care about broader community issues?

Thanks to ubiquitous Internet access, a proliferation of mobile devices and easy-to-use web apps, the executive suite’s relationship to the rest of the world has changed. Corporations are able to engage with their stakeholders like they’re a corner store rather than a faceless multinational. That means the days of separate silos of communication are over. Corporate social responsibility, cause marketing and corporate philanthropy can no longer operate independently as if they serve different audiences. This is especially true for companies that profit from any services or products that contribute to social ills.

It is time for a unified approach to caring, driven by an awareness that your company is part of a larger ecosystem and community. Not only have these audiences converged, their expectations of companies have changed. You need to demonstrate an authentic commitment to the social causes your company has chosen to support. And your operations need to demonstrate this commitment just as much, if not more, than your marketing and communications.

What’s the cost of not aligning operations with marketing when it comes to doing good? As Umair Haque of the Havas Media Lab stated in a recent post, “In a disconnected world, the costs of evil are minimal.” Continuing this logic, Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, proposed a new term: “Haque’s Law” Its meaning? “As interaction explodes, the costs of evil are starting to outweigh the benefits.”

While “evil” might seem a harsh word, social issues carry with them implicit and explicit morality. One cost of business in the networked marketplace is exposure to moral judgments from individuals and organizations at an increasingly faster pace.

The Timberland Company is an example of a business trying to move beyond just marketing. Founded in 1952, Timberland has grown into a $1.5 billion company and a leader in effectively integrating corporate citizenship and cause marketing. The company gives 40 hours of paid time off for community service to each employee each year, coordinates an annual company-wide day of service, supports City Year and other nonprofits and has committed to reaching a neutral carbon footprint in all its operations.

After years of walking the walk of corporate citizenship, Timberland overcame its hesitancy to talk about the walk and made citizenship a central theme of its marketing and advertising. In 2008, the company launched Earthkeepers, an eco-line of products, with a comprehensive marketing campaign making sustainability and corporate citizenship the cornerstone of the Timberland brand. The centerpiece of this campaign has been Earthkeeper.com, an online community integrated into all the major social media networks that draws individuals who share the same values and commitment to sustainability. In addition, the company issues a quarterly Earthkeeper report, detailing its progress toward its community goals.

Rather than hide from the greater intimacy of online media, Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz has embraced it. He is frequent user of Twitter, sharing his thoughts, ideas and reactions to what’s happening in the world. For instance, immediately following the Haiti earthquake, he traveled on a humanitarian mission organized through the company’s partnership with Yéle Haiti, a foundation started by Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean. With company funds originally intended to support an ambitious reforestation initiative, Timberland showed flexibility in redirecting the monies to support the rebuilding of Haiti’s infrastructure.

After he returned from Haiti, Swartz shared his experience in a blog post. On the three-month anniversary of the earthquake, he accompanied former Senator Bob Kerrey and Billy Shore, CEO of Share Our Strength, on a trip back to Haiti to help scores of amputees created by the earthquake begin the process of regaining their lives.

While Timberland is not without its blemishes, those leading it realize the importance of a unified approach to social good.

5 Comments On: Corporate Citizenship in the Networked Marketplace

  • Raymond Fong | July 22, 2010

    Absolutely.

    The business world is moving to an open-door policy where they actually interact, on a social level, with their clients/customers.

    In the digital world today, you have to take control of your own brand (online) lest someone else does (and trash it).

    Yaye for social media and transparency!

  • Louise Altman | July 27, 2010

    Great post!
    What is so fascinating is how most corps still operate from the old fear based model. They still don’t get it – and their structures move at a glacial pace.
    As org development consultants,we continue to be amazed how many companies tell us “we have no issues with trust.” Just this morning a MAJOR global companies with a VERY HIGH negative profile said that very thing.
    Too many employers and employees believe they can innovate and suceed in the current low trust low touch environment – when social media is all about transparency – and relationship building!
    Companies like Timberland are the exception right now – but hopefully a new model for new mindsets and expectations.

  • Doug Hadden | July 28, 2010

    Transparency of information enables us to distinguish between Corporate Social Responsibility as marketing vs CSR as core to company values.

    Many observers have incorrectly concluded that CSR is dead because we can see beyond smoke and mirrors. These observers (the business of business is business) do not realize that the internet is exposing organizations who are truly responsible. And, this transparency is creating a new breed of companies who innovate to overcome social problems.

  • karyy | August 25, 2010

    Yaye for social media and transparency!

  • How Integrated Impact Can Drive Your Market Innovations | New Empire Builders | April 27, 2012

    […] fundamental shifts happening in the world. What I heard and saw reminded me about what I wrote in this piece for the MIT Sloan Management Review: corporations will need to take an integrated approach to their social impact in the connected […]

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