December 5th, 2023

The commercial advantage of being less anti-social

De-bunking the myths of social impact

It's nice to be nice – the advice of many a parent down the years. Be friendly, think of others and don't be unkind, and you'll get along just fine in life. If you're nice to others, people will be nice to you. If you're not, well, don't expect to be invited on any more playdates. 

It's the same in business. Create an open, respectful working culture, and the best people will come to work with you. Build happy, trusting relationships with your customers, and they'll reward you with their loyalty. Be a force for good and a good corporate neighbour in your community, and commercial advantage and opportunities will follow.  

But social commitments and the rewards they create are at risk of getting left behind.  With increasing urgency, businesses are focusing on their environmental responsibilities – and rightly so. But social impact strategies are stalling.

Juggling your CSRs with your ESGs

Traditionally, CSR teams in corporations delivered social impact by partnering with charities. But now that all major companies in the UK are required to report on ESG performance, the remit is much broader than one team's objectives. Being a socially responsible corporate actor is an increasingly integral factor for every team, department, customer, supplier and transaction. 

‘Social’ looks like the golden thread that binds these two overlapping acronyms. But along the way, it's lost its power. ESG wasn't meant to be a hierarchy, but it often feels like it. Aside from the odd ostrich-like climate denier, most people agree the importance of the environment pretty much trumps everything else: the world is getting warmer, and without urgent human intervention, our planet and everything on it is in danger. 

But social issues, from gender and race equality to immigration, cost-of-living to the health and happiness of local communities, are also things people care about just as deeply. 

Companies are certainly as closely involved with these concerns as with the climate emergency. So why are social strategies amounting to, in practice, little more than having a day off to paint a fence? It seems the urgency of E has thwarted the progress of the S. 

Removing social barriers 

Social responsibility is a vast and rich area for organisations to engage with. So to bring clarity and confidence to your impact, you'll need to address anti-social ideas head-on. 

Anti-social idea #1: Social issues are too complex and diverse

The problem is that people are everywhere. And they're all different. And their needs keep changing.

And yet, without them, you wouldn't have a business. 

Allocating time and resources to understanding and improving the lives of your staff and customers will lead to good things. Richer, more long-lasting relationships. Happier, more loyal people who are likely to work hard and spend money with you. Conversations that produce exciting ideas and lead to new collaborations. A company reputation you can all be proud of. 

Anti-social idea #2: It's nothing to do with my company

It's not that I don't care about homelessness, domestic violence or LGBTQ+ rights. But aren't there better-suited organisations out there to deal with these problems? 

Well, there might be. But there's no monopoly on causes to support. And what about the people experiencing homelessness near your offices? What about your staff or customers who might be living in fear or the victims of discrimination?   The connection is not always the obvious one.

However, in deciding on which social issues to engage with, the starting point must always be your organisation's unfair advantage to tackle that problem. What unique assets and capabilities does your business have, and what problems could that help solve better than the next company. 

Anti-social idea #3: It's hard to measure

The thing about the E of ESG is that we have a handy net zero target that gives us all something to work towards. There's no equivalent for social criteria.  

Sure, the S won't deliver impressive stats on the amount of carbon you've sequestered in your sustainable off-setting programme (though, frankly, those figures don't always bear scrutiny either), but it will deliver results. 

For example, it's eminently possible to report figures on diversity and community engagement. And measures such as the Social Return on Investment illustrate how social and environmental investments deliver financial returns.  At one of our recent roundtables Financial Services roundtables, one attendee said organisations often hide behind this argument.  But there are creative ways to measure.  For example, from an employee engagement point of view you can find ways to understand how social purpose affects hiring and retention rates.

Anti-social idea #4: It's not worth investing in.  

I'd like to be doing more, but resources are stretched, we already have an EDI policy, and I can't make a business case for much else. 

Standing still on social commitments is a precarious position. Your staff care about social investment and responsibility more than ever, which means greater productivity and lower recruitment costs for the companies who invest in it. Just as importantly, a strong social action will enable you to connect with customers on their terms, drive brand loyalty, improve your reputation, and give you a competitive advantage

But I'm sensing an even bigger opportunity. 

Rather than subordinating the S to the E, businesses should be investing in both. Social issues are vital in their own right and tightly intertwined with environmental urgency. Just as human production and consumption affects the environment, environmental damage affects social issues, including immigration, pollution, housing and poverty. Acting on social issues doesn't only drive empathy with people on issues they care deeply about; it's also an opportunity to make environmental issues tangible. 

Social issues tap into deep-seated psychological needs and fundamental beliefs about who we are and what we believe. The brands that will thrive in this burgeoning consumer landscape will be those taking action on the social issues that their customers feel in their hearts and minds. 

How to turn your social strategy into meaningful action? Innovate. 

We live in ever more socially responsible times. We also live in ever more sceptical times. Disingenuous corporate initiatives and a voracious media landscape have prompted widespread cynicism about businesses who don't follow through on their promises. 

Diversity washing, purpose washing, social washing and others are fast becoming the new greenwashing. So your social commitments must amount to more than a purpose statement. Discovering the right social issues for your brand is one thing; delivering meaningful action is another. And this is where purpose innovation comes in. 

A purpose transformation process through innovation will help make sure your social strategy delivers for staff, customers and shareholders. Innovation engages the whole organisation. It identifies your core expertise and mobilises it for social good. Innovation evolves your culture in line with your social goals. And innovation delivers a commercially sustainable social programme that will ultimately enhance your profitability and market share. 

It's nice to be nice. It's socially responsible to be nice. And, most importantly for your business,  it pays to be nice. Will your business embrace innovation and elevate the S to where it rightly belongs?