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Lead With Your Authentic Values

Increasingly vocal customers, shareholders, and employees will hold you to account.

It seems you can't open a newspaper or magazine these days without seeing a company or brand showcasing its 'green strategy.' In the last few years, we've seen environmental and social strategies move from an annual report footnote to a headline in how companies promote themselves and their products. That's a very positive thing-if it's authentic.

Creating real social or environmental change makes you feel good. It can also be good business, but only if it's true to your business or your brand. With increasingly vocal shareholders, customers and employees holding you to account, the path taken has to be well thought out and backed up by authentic action. Authenticity is becoming an increasingly critical currency in a world where consumer feedback has the power to validate or critique a business's actions.

Walking the walk
There are many great examples of businesses living their values. These companies start with the question, 'What is the change we want to see in the world?' versus 'What is the change people want to see us talking about so that they buy more of our product?' The in-going thinking is values-based first, profit-based second, and, interestingly, that's often how the biggest returns come. People respect and support it when a company stands for its beliefs. Under GE's 'green is green' strategy, the company invested $90 million of its $3.7 billion R&D budget on green projects and 'green' sales rose from $6 billion in 2004 to $12 billion in 2006. While some critique GE, there is no arguing that they are moving toward 'greener' values.

There also are those companies working through the process of defining their Corporate Social Responsibility values. Often, in the initial stages, it doesn't quite feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kellogg recently announced that it was going to make cereals and snacks marketed to children more nutritious and stop advertising its sugary cereals to kids. Kellogg avoided facing a lawsuit threatened by groups worried about childhood obesity. This could be viewed as expedient behavior, but as the commitment and actions take hold, customers, shareholders, and staff will become increasingly supportive, ideas will start to become additive, and the strategy will become self-sustaining.

The camp you don't want to be in is those businesses that jump on the bandwagon because it's popular with their publics and not because it comes from the heart of the organization. The term 'greenwashing' is often applied to companies who talk but don't walk the walk when it comes to environmental strategies. Customers may be fooled once, but the backlash can be swift and extremely damaging.

In thinking about how to deliver an authentic Corporate Social Responsibility strategy to your business or brand, consider the following:

* Your values most come from your DNA: They can't be bolted on as an afterthought. For example, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is a Canadian-based, member-owned co-op focused on 'self-propelled wilderness-oriented recreation' and a supplier of outdoor gear and clothing. MEC is regularly recognized for values that come directly from their mission statement.

* Be prepared to be accountable: Before embarking on a values-based strategy, determine how you are going to be measured. 'What are we doing to become carbon neutral?' has become something that even ad-agency management teams talk about. But without understanding the measurable outcome, good intentions can become hollow goals.

* Start slow, learn and refine as you go: Set realistic goals and timelines. Don't try to change the world overnight. You'll have more success with a small change well-executed than a noble goal with no proof points.

* Be fully open to feedback and learning-don't be afraid of your customers: Actively solicit commentary, encourage blogs, contribute and engage. Customers respect conversation.

* Embrace risk: Values-based marketing can mean moving out of your comfort zone. For example, Vancity, Canada's largest credit union, recently launched a bike-share program, giving out 45 bikes and encouraging people to 'take a ride, ride it, and pass it on.' While not directly related to banking, it gave Vancity a chance to put its money where its values are.

* Work in collaboration with others: Wal-Mart and Home Depot have pledged to lower their environmental footprint by offering sustainable products and favoring suppliers who use less packaging, restrict emissions, and embrace sustainability.

* Put your money where your mouth is: Invest in new products that live your values.

Finding your authentic way
As Corporate Social Responsibility strategies become an increasing visible part of a business's brand or brand's public face, finding your authentic way to play will require a greater investment in time and in hard dollars. Done right, though, the benefits can far outweigh the costs. And, you'll sleep better at night knowing you're doing your part to create positive change.

Andrea Southcott is president of TBWA/Vancouver (www.tbwa-vancouver.com), a full-service advertising and media-planning company. This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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