Are you speaking the same CR language?

Corporate responsibility and cause branding are on the top of the agenda for many C-suite executives. The biggest challenge is pinpointing exactly what leaders mean when they use these terms.

Corporate responsibility (CR) and cause branding are on the top of the agenda for many C-suite executives. The biggest challenge, however, is pinpointing exactly what leaders mean when they are throwing around these terms.

How can business and social change ever be achieved when one person is saying “CR” and others are only hearing “donations” or “sustainability”? Many still mischaracterize corporate responsibility too narrowly – they focus attention on only one issue, such as environmental stewardship, or on one strategy, such as philanthropy.

At Cone, we use the term corporate responsibility (CR) and define it as aligning business practices with stakeholder expectations to innovate solutions and enhance reputation. A CR strategy starts with aligning the issues most material to a company's growth and of most concern to its stakeholders. For example, a food-and-beverage consumer products company may be focused on agricultural and packaging issues, while a consumer technology company may be more concerned about end-of-life disposal issues (e-waste) or working conditions throughout its supply chain. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. What matters is having an appropriate CR vision that's shared internally, establishing credible goals and communicating transparently with your stakeholders.

“Cause branding” is an important part of a company's CR strategy. At Cone, we define it as aligning a brand with a societal issue to inspire and create engagement and loyalty. It can be used as a short-term campaign or a longer-term initiative. Today, many brands have an association with distinct social or environmental causes, whether it's Dawn protecting wildlife or Yoplait funding breast cancer programs (client).

When evaluating your strategy, don't get tripped up by the terminology. Instead, ask the right questions:

What are we trying to achieve? If it's reputation-related or helping the company get credit for product innovations or business practices, it is corporate responsibility. If it's about adding an emotional dimension to your brand by supporting a social issue, it is cause branding.

Who makes up your primary audiences? Cause branding is generally focused on reaching employees and/or consumers. Corporate responsibility covers issues that are relevant to employees and consumers, as well as other external stakeholders, such as socially responsible investors, suppliers, and activists.

What is your strategy? If your approach involves donating money, tying a social issue to a product, or volunteerism, it is likely cause branding. If it is about building brands by driving environmental efficiencies, and addressing material business issues, it is CR.

Understanding and leveraging these distinctions can drive business advantage. Companies that clearly communicate what they stand for and how they operate are better equipped to compete in the rapidly evolving global marketplace.

Jonathan Yohannan is SVP and head of corporate responsibility at Cone, a Boston-based PR and marketing agency. He can be reached at

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