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Influx interview: kierstin de west- corporate social responsibility- pt 1

August 8, 2005

Kierstin De West runs Ci, a branding consultancy that helps companies understand the relationship between consumers, their brands and sustainability.

This is part one of a two-part interview.

Can you briefly describe your background and your company?

Ci is a marketing & branding centre for the cultural shift to sustainability. We help mainstream marketers understand this cultural shift (and quickly emerging consumer attitude) and respond to it. And we help Integrity Brands (r) grow without losing credibility.

My background is in account planning. From the agency side I went client side to About.com, where I was brought on to help focus the brand to consumers, investors and the media.

While at my last full time agency gig in 2000 I noticed early signs of this shift, realized its importance and began to focus on it.

The most recent leg of this research is Ci’s Spring 2005 North American qualitative research study

What is it that makes you believe that social responsibility is an important issue for companies to consider?

Overall, social responsibility is an important characteristic of what we see as an overall cultural shift towards sustainability occurring. (it’s important to note that sustainability applies to more than just “environment”)

3 reasons it’s an important issue for companies to consider-

1. It’s what consumers want. That’s not to say they are directing 100% of their lifestyle choices and purchase decisions around this. But loud and clear they are telling us this is what they want, its what they are thinking about. It’s an area they want and need leadership and guidance.
2. Bottom line benefits
3. It’s essential for a brand to understand the culture in which it does business. Done right, and communicated properly, CSR is a competitive advantage. It important to take into consideration these 2 things:

Consumers apply different rules to different kinds of brands when they are evaluating any brand communications that has to do with CSR (via any vehicle).

The 3 Cardinal Rules of Communicating Social Responsibility

1. Source information and proof: “Show me the proof” Chicago, 18-34, Ci qualitative research

2. Specifics: “I don’t know what the EXXON one was talking about. I couldn’t pick up anything concrete. Really general” – Austin, 35-55, response to Exxon print ad, Ci qualitative research

3. Honesty: “You see these Coors ads with nature and the outdoors, and Coors is the biggest polluter in Colorado. It’s false” Los Angeles, 18-34, Ci qualitative research

Don’t most companies just react to pressure, rather than start out with responsibility baked into their DNA- do you think this is changing?

Historically with mainstream consumer brands, I’d absolutely agree. What we now see occurring in the marketplace is a rise of brands that do have this baked into their DNA, its a founding cornerstone and they are both driving and benefiting from this cultural shift. Whole Foods, for example, is an icon brand in this area.

But we now see more and more of these brands entering the marketplace or gaining strength in the marketplace, not yet with the awareness or distribution clout of bigger brands like Coke and IBM. They are niche, yet influential brands across a range of categories -and they’re growing in awareness especially with thought leaders and trendsetters (Fashion: Edun, American Apparel. Food/Packaged Goods: Hain Brands. Media: Steve Cases’ Revolution Living, E-commerce: Vivai) And we are now seeing major consumer brands engaging in this area, Fairmont,, Nike, BP, GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt has come out saying sustainability is where the money is.

However what tends to happen in this area, is that CSR is not holding hands with brand. They tend to be separate departments. So we see CSR communications efforts that are a completely different experience from typical brand communications it’s a disconnect for consumers. For the most part, the marketing communications we see out there don’t take into consideration key consumer truths about communicating CSR. A few things that brands and their agencies need to be aware of.

1. CSR and Brand DNA are not mutually exclusive
2. The rules to live by in terms of communicating CSR
3. Past mistakes, while won’t evaporate, can be dwarfed.

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