Corporate social responsibility programmes must be underpinned by research to be a success – a thought piece by Liz Watts

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes have risen up the business agenda in the last decade. But without proper research to underpin them, they risk becoming a tick box exercise, says Liz Watts, EdComs’ Research and Consultancy Director.

Aside from delivering reputational benefits for brands, CSR is widely used as a means of building positive relationships with customers and stakeholders in a way that gives back.

Naturally, companies will seek out issues that align with their brand. Unfortunately, in single-minded pursuit of a fitting cause, without careful research and planning, CSR can quickly become a tick box exercise with limited value for the supposed beneficiaries.

Too often, organisations fall into the trap of developing CSR programmes to address very real societal issues based on little more than hope and assumptions on how best to tackle them. While these programmes may have a palpable feel-good factor, they are missing a trick when it comes to having real impact. With accountability key, brands increasingly recognise the value of investing in evaluating the results of their CSR campaign, but many overlook the importance of conducting developmental research up-front, and so miss out on the significant value it adds.

The Be Real initiative, founded by Dove and YMCA, is an example of a campaign that has done its due diligence on its chosen issue of body image anxiety. The nationwide campaign aims to change attitudes to body image and has just launched its programme in schools to ensure the right support is available to help build body confidence in young people.

As organisations that are synonymous with beauty and wellbeing, the issue fits naturally with Dove and YMCA’s brand identities. However, both organisations were keen to develop an evidence-based approach and so undertook extensive research from the outset, in order to get to the heart of body image anxiety and how best to address it.

The research behind the campaign involved an initial online survey of over 2,000 11-16 year-olds and 500 teachers across the UK, to assess attitudes toward body image and current practice in education on teaching about body confidence.

The online methodology was chosen as the best way of eliciting honest answers on a sensitive subject. We all know that the internet is a natural environment for young people, so they feel comfortable ‘talking’ in this way. It also provides the anonymity, not possible in, say, a focus group, needed for them to share their honest thoughts without fear of judgement. As such, the online survey enabled Dove and YMCA to build a reliable picture of what young people really think about body image.

The online study also allowed Dove and YMCA to reach a wide range of young people across the country – from coastal towns to rural villages. All too often, research focuses on big cities, meaning the results don’t take account of possible differences in attitudes, situations or practice between urban and rural environments, potentially resulting in CSR programmes that only work for part of the population. The online methodology ensured Dove and YMCA were able to look at the UK as a whole and develop a programme that was truly applicable to all those it was designed to reach.

The initial quantitative research was also valuable in providing key themes to help shape the qualitative research that followed. There were a number of things uncovered by the survey, such as the degree to which boys were concerned about their looks, and the lack of awareness teachers had of this. This insight enabled Dove and YMCA to follow up with boys in the subsequent focus groups and to explore the kind of support they would find helpful. Knowing that teachers saw body image as more of a female issue meant that the Be Real campaign knew that as a first step the programme needed to raise teachers’ awareness of how body image can affect boys.

Of course, discovering a genuine issue to address is just one element of launching a CSR campaign with true value. Making sure a CSR programme can be successfully implemented is another. That’s why it’s crucial to engage with those that will be involved in delivering it. In the case of Dove and YMCA, who had plans to develop a body confidence toolkit for schools, these people were teachers.

By speaking directly to teachers up front, the Be Real campaign was able to uncover what activity was already taking place in schools around body confidence, identifying any gaps, barriers or challenges. Understanding the context within which the programme was to be used allowed Dove and YMCA to develop a toolkit that was practical and credible for those responsible for delivering it. The research highlighted the importance teachers place on programmes that impact young people beyond a single issue. Providing evidence that improved body confidence can affect overall performance at school was a powerful motivator for teachers to engage with the programme.

Within two weeks of its launch, the Be Real Body Confidence Toolkit was downloaded by 650 schools around the country, demonstrating how true relevance prompts action and engagement.

There is a common misconception that CSR programmes with good aims naturally have good outcomes. As a result, the need for robust research in the development phase is often overlooked. The truth is that an effective CSR campaign relies on more than anecdotal evidence of an issue and how to tackle it.

Brands need to really understand their chosen issue and get under the skin of those they are seeking to target. Research is fundamental in drawing actionable conclusions about the best way to tackle an issue in a way that supports both those it’s designed to help and those delivering it.

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Liz Watts
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