Is Corporate Social Responsibility at the heart of your story?

Just occasionally when you’re listening to a speaker or reading an article, something clicks.  I had such a moment whilst listening to Julia Worthington and David Pollock (DP pictured in the bin!) talking about Corporate Social Responsibility at the recent Directors’ Briefing hosted by Saffery Champness Accountants.

I’m writing a new book at the moment entitled “Choose Me!” which explores the dilemma faced by many buyers these days – how to decide whether to buy from this or that provider?  It’s a thorny problem for employers looking to fill a vacancy; they’ve got a sack-full of CV’s sporting first rate educational and technical credentials, so how do you distinguish one candidate from another?

It’s much the same in the business community, but sellers don’t make it easy for buyers to choose them because they all sound a bit similar.  So many people think marketing involves pushing a bland, factual message far and wide on the assumption that sales will be generated.  It’s all a bit vanilla – “we’re based here, we do this, we’ve got 6 offices and deal with these sorts of clients”.

Simply telling more people what you do has always worked as a marketing strategy to a certain degree, but it’s fast becoming a broken system.  There’s way too much noise out there and we tend to switch off and ignore stuff.

What DOES work, however, is having a strong story.  Instead of pushing an unremarkable message on people who haven’t given you permission to talk to them, a PULL approach involves saying things that are worth listening to and doing things that warrant people’s attention.  I loved what David told us about his company, Chess Telecom, one that’s consistently listed in The Times Top 100 Companies to Work For.   It’s got a strong story.  Part of that story are the excellent products and services they supply.  But if it was just that, they’d be no different from anyone else.  What makes their story really interesting (and distinctive) is what their people do, and their many CSR activities are a key component of this.

So many people claim to have a USP, but in my experience it’s more of a CSP (Common Selling Point)!  But here are the things that really are unique in a business:

  • your people
  • the relationships they have with others
  • the stories they generate

If you build your message around these things you really WILL be unique because you’re in them! As David pointed out, most corporate communications make for dreary reading – latest offers, new offices opening up, etc.  The MD might think this is news, but that doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy.  What people like to read about are good stories – how you transformed a client’s situation in a novel way, how an employee raised £15,000 for his daughter’s hi-tech wheelchair by reaching out to the local community, or in the case of Herdy, how you paid for some apprentices to be trained as dry stone-wallers to maintain the local landscape.

Take a look at the Herdy web-site and you’ll see a clear message.  It’s not focused around the product list or special discounts.  It’s, “This is what we believe in, want to join our tribe?”  The real story of that company is what led the directors to set it up, how they challenged perceptions about pricing and fair trade and did something to retain the distinctive nature of the environment and support local farmers.

Simon Sinek describes how powerful this approach is through his concept of the Golden Circle.  Most people communicate their message by starting with their WHAT; they might get on to their HOW but few talk about (or even know) their WHY.  And by why he doesn’t mean to make a profit, he means your cause, your purpose, the wrong you’ve set out to right, the reason you get out of bed in the morning.  In his experience, the most revered leaders and companies communicate the other way around – they start with their WHY.  He cites Apple as a great example – I’d also add John Lewis to that list, as well as Chess and Herdy of course.

The key, he says, is not to find people who need what you offer.  It’s about finding people who believe what you believe.  When you have a strong story, when you know your why and instil a culture based around it, you attract the right type of customers and employees.  These people find something in your message that resonates with them.  They come to you ‘pre-warmed’ and they’re easy to motivate and more likely to stay loyal and spread the word.  Your message centres around your beliefs and values and this becomes your main marketing tool.

Companies with a strong story-based culture (driven by their why) find it easier to retain staff, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, attract and retain good clients and are generally more fun places to work (and buy from).  They develop a ‘story vault’ which provides fantastic material which people want to read. It all goes into creating their distinctive personality as a company.  In short, it makes it easy for (the right) buyers to choose them.

So thank you to David, Julia and Safferys for giving me even greater clarity about the importance of your story, your culture and the huge benefits of putting CSR at the heart of things.

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