Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

At a recent 1/2 day session called Corporate Social Responsibility and the Corporate Brand, Dr. Jay Handelman, associate professor of marketing at Queen's University School of Business, argued for CSR taking a central strategic role in a company's branding efforts. His point of view is that "In order to survive and thrive, a company must tend to the expectations of societal stakeholders that extend beyond a company's obligations to its owners or shareholders."

To some extent companies have no choice. The corporate social context has changed . . . there are more active anti-corporate social forces able to organize themselves using digital technology in all its populist forms, popular culture is progressively more alert to democratization, company shareholders are multi-dimensional (with values driven by their roles not just as investors, but consumers, citizens, family members, and human beings motivated by emotions and ethical viewpoints), young people are coming into business with different cultural markers. In essence the corporate brand is now actually a "socially-owned" brand.

If you accept these arguments, CSR therefore can't be reduced to a tactic for improving corporate reputation in the interest of hiring the best talent (although evidence exists that talented prospects prefer to work for socially responsible companies), reducing risk, increasing employee productivity or buying goodwill. CSR will have to become a key strategic element in managing the corporate brand. And the corporate brand itself, because it lives in the world and not in a corporate boardroom, will have to be thought of, as Dr. Handelman says, as the product of "brand journalism; that is, a narrative or a chronicle."

The implication is that companies will have to help solve social problems, especially if they have caused those problems. This extends to taking responsiblity for the environmental, social, health and economic impact of its operations, rather than assuming that throwing money at philanthropic projects will buy support. Companies will have to create social value while managing what Dr. Handelman calls "legitimacy" by "blending in with societal values, simultaneous disavowal of commercial motives, and third party confirmation."

As a model, he points to Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc. in the United States, a manufacturer of carpeting and other upholstery. Take a look at the company's vision . . . "To be the first company that by its deeds shows the entire industrial world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: People, process, product, place and profits -- by 2020 -- and in doing so will become restorative by the power of influence."


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