Beyond PR

Jan 16, 2012

Social Branding & Implications for Communicators

Simon Mainwaring, founder of We First, a social branding consultancy

I’ve been following Simon Mainwaring (@simonmainwaring) on Twitter for several years now, and for almost the same duration have been an admirer of this work and thinking.  So I jumped at the chance to talk to him about corporate social responsibility – and what responsible business practices mean to (and require of) communicators.

But first, some context.  When Mainwaring talks about corporate social responsibility, he goes far beyond the veneer of sponsorship.

“Cause marketing,” he says, “is window dressing. Talking a good game isn’t good enough.  Brands have to walk the talk in terms of products, transparency and authenticity.”

According to Mainwaring, businesses needs to change fundamentally if they hope to operate as the socially responsible entities the marketplace desires. According to the goodpurpose global study conducted by Edleman, 86% of global consumers want businesses to place at least equal weight on society’s interests as they do on those of the business. That means changing business models and redefining profit centers.

“It’s difficult for brands to be socially responsible when their models are based on the past, and include profit centers built around practices focusing on shareholders and profits,” Mainwaring noted. “It’s not a perception problem, it’s a business problem.  They have to revisit profit centers, way they treat employees, etc.”

Obviously, businesses can’t transform overnight.  But as they move along the process, communications plays a vital role, especially given the transparency demanded by today’s connected consumers.   And even if the enterprise isn’t ready for the fundamental changes Mainwaring suggests, there’s no doubt that developing better connections with customers and becoming more transparent actually mitigates risk.  As the Bard said, “The truth will out,” and nowhere is that truism more evident today than on social networks.

Improving transparency

“We have a simple choice,” Mainwaring told me. “We can either demonize all brands and ignore the good they do, or we can celebrate the good they do to create a permission slip to encourage others.”

Creating an environment that enables consumers to support good work that brands are doing is vital. Brands can only continue sustainable business practices if the marketplace rewards it.

And that’s where communicators can play a crucial role.   As an organization adopts more open communications practices or starts to evolve their business, they open themselves up for additional public scrutiny.  Communicators can provide the context that is essential in order for the marketplace to understand the story.

Communicators need to contextualize the brand’s efforts, in terms of what the brand stands for, its core values, how they’re taking it to market and making it real, and what they’re improving. But, Mainwaring cautioned, the message has to be authentic.

Authentic communciations

The greatest challenge brands face in this exercise is with respect to their ability speak authentically.  Mainwaring notes that organizations need to strive to develop an authentic communications culture.  This isn’t simply an exercise in communications strategy.

Examples of what it means to develop an authentic communications culture include:

  • The visionary CEO or board needs to buy off on the vision and take it to market
  • The company needs to fully embrace and communicate the vision
  • Employees need to buy in, and become advocates of the vision.  They are the first line of contact in many cases
  • Relate the vision to the marketplace.

This approach offers organizations one more challenge – developing alignment between leadership, employees and communications.

“Without this you can’t achieve the transparency and authenticity your audience are looking for,” Mainwaring concluded. “The most important thing is the integration of purpose.”

About Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring  is an award-winning branding consultant, bestselling author, influential blogger and international speaker. The author of We First: How brands and consumers use social media to build a better world (June 2011, Palgrave Macmillan) a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon bestseller, Mainwaring is also the the founder of We First, a social branding consultancy committed to helping brands build communities, profit and positive impact. He is a member of the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London. He also contributes to Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, Mashable, and GOOD Magazine.

On February 1 & 2, the We First Social Branding Seminar will convene, focusing on building social branding blueprints for attendees. For more information on this event, please visist .

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

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