Nike, Levi's and Finding the 'Social' In Corporate Social Responsibility

Stand out by taking a stand. But you have to be visible

"Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." 

Those are the words written across Colin Kaepernick's face in the now-famous Nike ad celebrating the 30th anniversary of "Just Do It." The ad immediately sparked outrage that included enraged consumers cutting the swooshes off their socks, which, as many have pointed out, was a bit futile. They had already bought them. 

It was a bold move for Nike, though not out of character. Similarly, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh penned a letter in Fortune detailing why his company would be stepping up its support for gun violence prevention. As he writes, it's not the first time Levi's has stepped up. It integrated its factories in the American South years before the Civil Rights Act was passed and offered benefits to same-sex partners in the 1990s, long before others did. 

You need to look no farther than these two stories of just the past few days to see that the effect of corporate social responsibility (CSR) on growing business and brands is getting its long-overdue attention. 

While there is no pre-compiled public database that determines the percentage of Fortune 500 companies with CSR departments, our findings at School indicate that almost half of these companies have developed at least one CSR goal in the last year. And it's estimated that $15 billion is invested annually by Fortune 500 companies in all types of corporate philanthropy. 

The primary driver of this trend? Having global operations makes it necessary for them to publicly address CSR efforts in order to maintain their social and environmental license to operate. The revenue data backs that up—companies reporting on their CSR efforts see greater financial success than competitors who do not. 

But not all CSR efforts are created equally—and they're not all received positively. That's why it matters for brands to know their audience and to consider how their marketing efforts align with their business and CSR goals. Consumers, especially Gen Y and Z, are increasingly calling on brands to take an authentic stand around pressing social issues. Therein lies a competitive differentiator for brands looking to grow their reach—putting the "social" in corporate social responsibility. 

More and more, brands have been inserting themselves into cultural conversations by grounding CSR efforts in social issues like gender equality, healthcare, civic involvement and human rights. But as the #JustBurnIt backlash shows, it's a tricky arena. 

This past June, at the height of debate around immigration, United Airlines partnered with FWD.us, a pro-immigrant, bipartisan advocacy group to offer free flights to families separated at the border. They gave out free flight vouchers, made a team available to answer questions 24/7, ensured their gate agents knew all the important details, and even managed seat assignments. It was an extensive CSR effort, and United posted its rationale in a comment to a FWD post on Facebook: "Our company's shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world—we are proud to support your work to help reunify immigrant children and families." 

There were clear detractors to this purpose-based effort, even while it was totally aligned with United's business. You can see the angry responses and reactions to the Facebook post, with some people saying they'd never fly United again. But they make up a small fragment of the whole pie, which was for the most part, positive. 

The same happened to American Eagle Outfitters when it took a stand against gun violence after the school shooting in Parkland. The company posted on its Instagram and emailed the millions of customers in its database, asking them to RSVP yes to the March for Our Lives protests happening across the country. There was much anger directed toward this action, just like Chip Bergh received when he penned that letter supporting gun control. But who wears American Eagle? Youth consumers. And they found this gutsy stand to be in perfect alignment with their values. 

Brands need to lean into the social part of CSR, and they need to make themselves visible. According to Cone Communications, 94 percent of Gen Z consumers believe companies should help address social and environmental issues, but only 65 percent pay attention to company's CSR efforts when deciding what to buy. Young consumers don't read CSR reports, but they do watch how brands react to ongoing social debates. 

Actions for social impact will be increasingly important for brands whose customer base is made up of more socially tuned-in consumers. Those who take a stand will stand out. Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. After all, how many times have you heard Nike in conversation over the past few weeks? 

Heather Mount

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Max Lenderman
Max Lenderman is CEO of School, a Boulder-based, purpose-led strategic and creative consultancy.