Friday, April 19, 2013

csr as agent of change


4Ps B&M examines the real potency that powers these three noble alphabets and arrives at some rather interesting conclusions

In the beginning come the definitions. First off the block is a true-blue pundit, C. B. Bhattacharya (E.ON Chair Professor in Corporate Responsibility at European School of Management Technology in Berlin) who believes CSR is “an exploration of marketing strategies and consumer behaviour that demonstrates how under-leveraged intangible assets like corporate identity and reputation, membership and brand communities can strengthen shareholder relationships”. He believes it is a dynamic fusion of doing good with doing well and business value can be reaped if organisations are prepared to move from a shareholder-centric space to a stakeholder-centric one. Another suggests that CSR is really about “strategically positioning a company in society so that it can actually take advantage of public concerns like poverty or global warming, rather than be damaged by them”.

Economist Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar pooh-poohs this, begs to differ and quotes (in his website columnist Chrystia Freeland’s take on CSR as “a fetish encouraged by the philanthropies that feed off it and funded by the corporate executives who have found that it serves their bottom line”. Social Commentator Santosh Desai joins the party with an interesting anecdote about a company’s head honcho sending a truck load of relief material to the Bhuj earthquake victims worth Rs.10 lakhs and wanting to create a campaign to announce this, worth Rs.3 crore! “He saw no contradiction and instead believed it was a legitimate platform for his brand, powering a pro-active marketing initiative that could enjoy great emotional rub-off and position his company as a warm, human and empathic corporate entity. It seemed to be a part of the corporate video game where rules of the real world don’t apply. It’s all about a great opportunity to communicate brand value,” Desai tells 4Ps B&M.

Veteran Ad Guru Alyque Padamsee moves away to openly confess that he is a tad bored by the killjoys and cynics that dot the Adfrat and prefers to see the brighter side of issues. “Agreed CSR initiatives may not always accomplish all that they wish to, but it’s not the intent that is at fault, but monitoring system. Be it government or private sector biggies, if these are carefully attended to and addressed, all would be fine,” says Padamsee. He also believes that if done well, it definitely helps image-building and giving corporates and government/PSUs a warm, human face.

Theatre Director, Actor and Communications Expert Avijit Dutt brings his take to the table. He wonders whether in today’s space “CSR is a mission or corporate ego at work”! He believes that these three alphabets are seductive buzzwords gathering momentum in a consumerist environment. True charity is (according to the Upanishads) where the giver neither remembers nor reminds us of the amount given “but here trumpets blow, even if in mute tone, to announce this fact. The government’s mandate for all companies to spend 2% of their PAT makes it even more directionless. Earlier CSR was the nature of voluntary action that business could take, clearly defining the intent of companies desiring to cut loose and go the extra mile. But now…”

Chairman & NCD of BBDO wraps up this debate, in style. Josy Paul is of the opinion that “true integration is when the idea integrates with society”. He believes creating acts not ads is the need of the hour and CSR is not something that you do as an add-on, but integral to the brand. He cites the example of their Aviva Life Insurance effort with their humongous act called Great Wall of Education. “This catapulted into a movement mobilizing people across the country to donate books and ended up collecting over 2.5 million books! Call it CSR, brand communication, whatever, it’s about communication being rooted in the social and cultural moment,” Paul tells 4Ps B&M. Gillette’s “Soldiers Wanted” and Tata Tea’s “Jago Re” campaigns, Paul believes, are two more commendable strikes in this direction and adds that it also includes ground action and online engagement.

So, finally does CSR rock in today’s times? It’s like this. No company exists in a vacuum. It operates in a society and its impact/behaviours – ethical, social, economical, environmental – will be open to criticism and scrutiny. Today’s societies demand more film co-operation than simply offering products and making profits. They expect that they trade fairly, uphold human rights, and protect the environment. CSR pundits believe that there are three points to it – charitable giving, community investments, and commercial initiatives. ITC Chairman, Y. C. Deveshwar (in a 2007 AGM) had pronounced the final words with passion and purpose: “Corporates in India have capability, vision and entrepreneurial skill to forge a more prosperous future for the nation, even as they sharpen there competitiveness and grow there business globally.”

However, in a world increasingly obsessed in knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing, this calling, function, corporate philanthropy, mandate or strategic commodity that adds to the credentials of a company, remains an area that, beyond rhetoric, will ultimately be saluted or scorned totally by its intent and impact. Nothing more. Nothing less.