Why brands are moving beyond CSR

What is it, really?

When a term such as corporate social responsibility, or CSR, becomes used so frequently, it’s true meaning is often lost. Any relevance it may have had becomes dismissed as white noise. Its promises become empty.

So what is CSR? For Investopedia, CSR is defined as ‘a corporation's initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company's effects on environmental and social wellbeing.’

Business News Daily argues that ‘technology has brought global connectivity and enabled advocacy and awareness for social situations that were once obscure’, and that ’as consumers' awareness about global social issues continues to grow, so does the importance these customers place on CSR.’

What’s the problem?

So if these definitions are an accepted facet of modern business practice, and popular with consumers to boot, why should brands be looking to move beyond CSR?

For Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP and one of the original advocates of CSR, who was recently interviewed by Marketing Week, CSR has become a failed strategy that ‘all too often is separated from the core function of the business.’

Browne argues that ‘[CSR] started out as an attempt to improve businesses’ engagement with society, but it has become a sticking plaster over a company’s issues and an afterthought for the board on a Friday afternoon.’

Other industry influences interviewed by Marketing Week share Browne’s view. Hugh Milward, the Corporate Affairs Director at Microsoft, believes ‘CSR has lost its credibility as a concept and we need to invent a new phrase’.

Cue, social purpose.

Why brands should adopt social purpose

For Marketing Week, social purpose is the new CSR. The aim of social purpose is for brands to find a way of contributing to society that is aligned with their core activities, as opposed to hijacking an unrelated social cause in a bid to boost popularity.

There are a number of major brands who have already begun their social purpose journey, and built a strong relationship with their consumers as a result;

Ben & Jerry's

One such example is Ben & Jerry’s, who since their conception in 1978 have consistently maintained a strong commitment to a handful of social causes and reinforced this commitment through their product offering.

Throughout their history Ben & Jerry’s have worked closely on environmental issues, partnering with the likes of SaveOurEnvironment.org to highlight global warming, and sought to increase political engagement by working with Rock the Vote to improve voter numbers.

Today Ben & Jerry’s remain true to their social purpose, with Marketing Week recently reporting on the company’s collaboration with Hope Not Hate to engage Londoners voting in the recent mayoral election. Their support for the campaign was backed up by a limited edition product flavour aptly entitled ‘Give a Fudge’.


Other significant leaps in social purpose have been made by Levi, the iconic jeans brand who have recently partnered with start-up Evrnu to ‘create the world’s first jean […] using five discarded cotton T-shirts to make new fiber.’ This new method also used 98% less water in making the product, and is being hailed as ‘a huge breakthrough in recycling technology.’

With consumers more socially aware than ever before and this trend showing no sign of reversal - The Huffington Post recently reported that ‘more than nine-in-10 Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause’ - empty CSR promises are not an option.

As social purpose gains currency, brands should be looking not at what promoting a cause can do for them, but what they can do for the cause.

Why brands are moving beyond CSR