Are Purpose-Driven Experiences the Future of CSR?

April 19, 2023

The pathway to purpose-driven experiences.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) on its own no longer makes a brand stand out. In fact, it’s now a basic expectation that retailers have social impact initiatives that align with their values. With this shift in consumer mindset, it’s critical that businesses make their customers feel a part of their purpose.

The Power of Information

Social responsibility is an ethical theory that says individuals and companies are obligated to maintain balance between economic growth and the welfare of society and the environment. It states that we must act in a way that benefits the whole of society, and the community that will inherit the world long after we’re gone.

Historically, companies weren’t formed for social good, it was hardly a part of the business plan. But in an age where technology and the internet rule, that all changed. Whistleblowers began leaking information about organizations with less-than-ideal working conditions, questionable political affiliations, and environmental impacts that could make Mother Nature weep.

This prompted a shift in consumer behavior; more and more shoppers began to buy with their conscience, and brands took notice. TOMS‘ initial success with their buy-one-give-one model paved the way for brands like Warby Parker, Bombas, and so many others. Companies realized that doing good is ultimately good for business. As more retailers took note, this space quickly became oversaturated, and what once helped a brand stand out, no longer worked. Today, CSR is a basic expectation, forcing brands to think of new and innovative ways to connect and communicate their social good efforts with the world.

Engaging With Purpose

In a survey conducted by PR firm Edelman, 75% of consumers said they would spend more on a brand that is committed to making the world a better place. However, only 39% of consumers knew of brands that support worthwhile causes.

How is that possible? Well, CSR implies some sort of social action—but unfortunately, these activities don’t typically include consumer participation. Many brands have taken the initiative to refine how their products are created, distributed, and sold—such as certifying with Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and other third parties. These actions absolutely qualify as CSR, and while they’re admirable approaches, they’re not involving the customer in the experience.

In today’s market, retailers must step outside of the box and consider creating more purpose-driven experiences, so customers feel connected to the cause AND the brand. And let’s be real—connection breeds loyalty and bottom-line growth.

Let’s check out premium water brand, LIFEWTR, known for their recycled bottles which act as a canvas for featured artworks, showcasing artists from underrepresented communities. One of their most widely recognized bottle series “Black Art Rising”, includes designs from creators whose work is inspired by the need for social justice. Last year, they invited everyone to join the conversation on TikTok using #BlackArtRisingContest. They also created a digital art gallery, promoted the artists on social media, and gave each artist a one-week takeover of the LIFEWTR Instagram channel.

LIFEWTR has made it their mission to have a positive societal impact, they’ve taken a clear stance on social injustices and continue to give a voice to BIPOC creators. Even without a physical store, they’ve found effective ways to draw customers in, encouraging them to actively participate—making them feel that much closer to the brand’s purpose.

Create The Change You Want to See

To build trust and authenticity, the causes a brand chooses to prioritize must be embedded into the business from the top down. For example, Trek Bikes has made the fight against climate change a core piece of their brand identity. They’ve increased their use of renewable energy, reduced corporate travel, decreased their reliance on air freight, and more.

Brands like Madewell are also creating the change that they want to see in the world by participating in sustainability initiatives, such as Cotton Incorporated’s denim recycling program, Blue Jeans Go Green. The non-profit organization doesn’t make or sell any denim products, but instead, provides opportunities for shoppers to recycle their old denim in exchange for a store discount.

But participating in a program like this isn’t enough in today’s landscape. For a brand’s purpose to be perceived as intentional and authentic, it must be woven into the company’s DNA. There have been countless examples of businesses getting called out for making generalized statements in support of a movement that they’ve never proven to be in support of. It’s often perceived as a vague attempt to appease the masses, and customers and even employees have been quick to call out brands who have tried to jump on the “doing good” bandwagon.

Madewell, on the other hand, has woven green practices throughout their business model. They are transparent about their mission and engage both employees and customers in their CSR efforts. Not only can customers visit a store to recycle their old denim, but employees are provided the opportunity to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, insulating homes with the actual material made from the donated denim. They’ve also taken a stance on animal welfare, and responsibly sourcing a variety of their materials—all of which they’ve clearly stated on their website.

Balance Is Key

The key to social responsibility is maintaining balance between financial growth and social good. And to do that, brands must have a purpose that resonates from their core. Retailers must consider the causes that are important to their customers, employees, and society as a whole—then take their brand’s CSR to the next level by actively engaging with purpose.