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Case Study: Mindless Branding, Heartless CSR

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Omkar Pant toyed with the things on his tray, arranging the cutlery, moving the napkins, piling the sugar sachets, humming as he waited for his colleague Shabad Walia to arrive with the warm blueberry bagels. The two were in Singapore to renew a sister brand for the Asian markets for their organisation, Cressenda.

Om idly examined the sugar sachet. Turning it over he read the message: Brand X's unsurpassed freshness standards ensure your beans are fresh. In fact, we prefer to donate our coffee to charities than sell any past its prime. So, any opened coffee that hasn't been sold after just seven days in our stores is given away within our communities.

Omkar read the words again; and felt dissapointed. In fact, we prefer to donate our coffee to charities than sell any past its prime... Omkar was a marketing man and he knew acts of business were very often at conflict with acts of the soul. Has Brand X (Bx) unwittingly oversold their customer satisfaction effort? Or, are they plain careless?

Just then Shabad arrived with the bagels and muffins, and as if a new scene and act had been announced, they set about assembling the coffee and dressing their bagels.

Noisily relishing the coffee, Shabad said, "You know, one might say coffee is coffee. But no, man! The Bx experience of warmth, the brown wood ambience and the friendly staff makes the coffee a heady experience here. It's a truth that any product can be replicated, but what you can't replicate is the customer experience."

Omkar: What is this thing called customer experience (CE)? Is it just the product and the assured after-sales service? And the before sales anticipation? Where does it lie?

Shabad: It's in the brand's body language and conduct — in its behaviour with its stakeholders, communities and competitors. So, for example, we have fair trade coffee — because consumers do not have the time to contribute to society (but want to), and they are happy when someone does it painlessly on their behalf. And they like to support such initiatives. Maybe this ‘social marketing space' will go through the same cycle that a product goes through: thoughts, invention, execution, innovation, waffling...

Omkar: (pushing a sugar sachet towards Shabad) So, Bx is already between innovation and waffling, it seems. Read this.

Shabad read the text twice over and smiled. "Nobody in the organisation noticed this? Can't be. These are big organisations that hire world-class agencies and copywriters and image managers. Yet again, how can they miss this!"

Omkar: You can miss this if you acted with a single-point desire to deliver customer satisfaction, above all else. 

Shabad: Frankly, nothing wrong with giving away to where there was nothing to begin with. Many restaurants in India give away the day's left over food to orphanages and old-age homes. Think, those people get food instead of hunger...

Omkar: Maybe. But they don't advertise it. Read the second sentence: In fact, we prefer to donate our coffee to charities than sell any past its prime. My take is customer obsession was probably the overwhelming emotion that led to this oversight. We are too eager to show our customer care, so much so that the world of people with needs are blurred, and the world of people with wants is upheld. The neglect that a customer will feel if you did not give him fresh is so devastating to you the marketer, that you are even willing to rubbish the beneficiary of your charity. ‘My customer must get the best' is not a desire but a design. CSR seems to stand for: Customer Satisfaction Responsibility instead of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Shabad: (Laughing) Advantage socialism! It seems to me, free market capitalism is balancing itself off with a dose of socialism. Unnecessary guilt pangs handled with clumsy hands to build ‘a compassionate public image'. I think good corporate social behaviour should first and foremost respect human sentiments. CSR has not taken roots among most organisations. It is merely the branches that hang from serious CSR initiatives that we are responding to.

Omkar: What you say is true. CSR has not taken birth among us. It is a borrowed paradigm and a reflected desire to be seen as a compassionate generation, rich in scarcity and need. We have rich people who want and we have poor people who need, so watch me balance this.

Collectively, this expresses as an ill-formed CSR. Where again sheer giving, sheer ‘allowing you to partake but only as much as I will define' is the definition. But who defines what this giving is and how it must be done? Or what this giving comprises?

Shabad: I agree. CSR cannot be an initiative, but must be an ethos. Therefore, CSR must arise in the heart and mind, and must seep down to the team. The Bx example is perhaps just one misguided effort, which will soon be corrected. But there must be thousands of such efforts where the idea is not to make a change, but to display the effort towards change. The results are irrelevant. I seriously think they have done this mindlessly, spur of the moment thinking, typical ‘back of the sugar sachet' thinking.

Omkar: And what makes it worse is the fact that often this is not even conscious. Yes, organisations will give away to charity what cannot be sold for a price. Upto this, it's fair. But to make capital of that to derive a CE statement rankles! And that is why I feel CSR is not an act; it is a state of being from which emerges a process. It is not about what I give the needy; it is about raising the awareness of the people who work in my organisation. It is recognising that ‘needy'  includes those in a state of numb, senseless existence. CSR is not what I do for one handicapped person or community; it is what I do for my entire organisation, which is existing in a state of wrong definitions. That is my point.

Yes, our CSR efforts are only about plucking at overhanging branches and not about laying roots. Single acts of charity are mere acts, not linked to a greater internalised ethos. And in the beginning there has to be an ethos.

Shabad: Let us take the Bx example a bit further downstream. Suppose they had an opened  coffee that is yet not consumed after seven days and they told their customers: "Bx freshness standards ensure that your coffee is brewed from fresh beans. But if the beans are not consumed withing seven days, Bx will voluntarily charge you only 25 per cent of the price for the seven day old coffee. This is part of our commitment to reduce waste, give you value for money and respect food and the environment. And any coffee that is opened and not consumed for more than 30 days we will give away free to our customers. Please ask for the Bx 30+ coffee for it to be served free."

Omkar: What you outline requires untold courage, Shabad. Because what it will be doing (if you think in the manner of brand builders) is presenting and offering a lesser brand of coffee to the very same consumer set to whom it had aggressively sold its great 100 per cent coffee experience. Now that is so contradictory, isn't it? This is the reason why when a can of tomato puree gets dented on the conveyor belt in the factory, it is set aside and the errant tin either ‘donated' or sold for less at the employee welfare shop (another poor label). Same reason why a tube of Fair and Lovely with even a tender scratch on its outer carton cannot find place on a shop shelf because it is not speaking the language of perfect beauty anymore. 

Therefore, how can a coffee parlour have two sections, one where 100 per cent coffee is sold and another where less than 100 per cent coffee is sold, which will cater to a target audience that is not known for wanting 100 per cent? Won't the people who make a bee line for discounted coffee feel ‘less than', alienated? So, the market stands divided: Bx at MRP for the 100 per cent consumer; Bx at 50 per cent for the less than 100 per cent consumer. There we are, back to a class-driven society!

Some silence, some bites of the bagels... then Omkar continued: OK, how about Bx has a counter for the "seven-day late experience" and say, "Be our partners in universal growth, buy a cup of full-priced coffee and get a refill at this counter for only 25 per cent of the original value of the coffee. This is part of the Bx commitment to reduce waste, give you value for money, etc. The discounted earnings will be channeled to our work with coffee growers in Cambodia, Ethopia, Kenya, etc.

Shabad: This makes sense. Make your consumer be a partner in making a difference. P&G is doing it with Shiksha where a rupee of every sale is channelled to Shiksha. Petroleum companies partner their employees. I like the idea of partnering employees and customers.

They ate in peace for a while, when Shabad said: "CSR is taken up due to adequate social pressure built-up within society to redistribute wealth to things (not necessarily people) that make life better. CSR activity is taken up because companies recognise the need to have a heart and a soul so that they are seen as ‘part of society'. And come to think of it, this could account for why sometimes, as in the case of Bx, the script lacks conviction. Because it is yet felt as a need, not as a want.

Omkar: But in India, CSR is an imported attitude. We see best practices trumpeted in global organisations, and we want to hitch on to the same bandwagon. That we are yet unhitched causes a certain alienation, in the midst of MNCs who make lofty statements. So, maybe not guilt, which would be desirable, but all this. Then again we cannot forget the sincere attempts made by smaller organisations...

Shabad: Then you will like Sunder's story. Sunder is the humble son of a humble father who was a steno in a government department. He set up a company called ServiceMaster. In the last eight years, Sunder's company organised several blood donation drives as their effort to give back to the society. It takes quite a bit to become the middle layer in CSR, the way ServiceMaster had become. But Sunder enjoyed it. Small organisations are more focused and perhaps more sincere because they are not looking at creating a ‘public image' from the activity. They are doing it because they believe they must give back, and they enjoy doing so. And very often they are people who are sincerely grateful for life's generosity — like Sunder. There are thousands of such small companies put together, who are perhaps doing more than the global organisations. 

But for a moment, let us focus on what a company does — makes things/services for us. If it did not, our lives would not be quite as good and comfortable. We thank the company for this. For example, I thank the power plants for making electricity because it keeps my computer going and makes me productive and keeps food on the family table. But the problem begins when I see the PSU is either making unjustified profits (which is a point of view), or is hurting the environment without regard to the damage being done (which can be unintentional).

I would like the company to correct both. Now, suppose the company began to say, "I will reduce my profits (meaning, give over to a cause to prevent environmental damage), but also charge you a cess for improving the environment because that is what you want". I wonder what will be my response. Are we as a society mature enough to say: "Yes, let's pay the cess. This power plant has the ability to make a big difference?"

Omkar: The only reason why people will refuse or hesitate is because of the perceived image of PSUs. For long we have thought of PSUs not so much as corrupt, but inefficient, incapable, slow, not-proactive and incapable of out-of-the-box thinking. So, while the idea is phenomenal, questions will be raised: What did they do? Who benefitted? How do I know that what they did was optimal?

Shabad: Yes, the PSU image has still to be neutralised. Alongside, it needs to deliver results with the consumer's money. This can actually help manage image also. So, there are two sides to the coin: the manufacturers on the one side and the consumers on the other. Both gain from the ‘product', so both should give. And it should be ‘transparent' giving. The question remains: who picks the cause to give to?

Omkar: Absolutely! And also was each penny utilised to its optimum? Or were there brokers in between who lined their pockets? Or will the money go to slick colour brochures and video presentations? What we see on the Bx sachet is a smaller scale of what we might see on a power board cover. Here Bx has taken a viewpoint of what charity deserves vis-a-vis what consumer deserves. It has made a point about consumer being more exalted a human than say the beneficiaries of charities. It is a viewpoint, but then we protest because it is jarring to the senses that two classes of humans are less equal.

Shabad: Or jarring to our stored value of what we estimate a Bx customer experience should be so that we are now disappointed.

Omkar: OK, OK... here is a clincher. What if the power supply company chooses to resettle a community of a minority religion in a small village? Then we have a raging fire. This maybe why they may not opine on where the charity will go. If Bx had not made that on its sachet, you and I would never have known and the seven-day-old coffee would be doing its rounds among the needy.

Shabad: (after some thought) Om, you hit a right thread here. Could it be that large companies, in the guise of CSR, are actually working out the new economics for their businesses? 

Take a hypothetical coal mining company named Koyla located in Bihar. It is supplying to a power plant called Urja, in Madhya Pradesh. The coal mines are almost surface mines and are spread out for miles. The mining results in small coal particles being suspended in the air causing untold misery to the farming community. Urja, the power plant too is cooling the ash in water and releasing the sludge into the fields around, turning the land highly alkaline. Say, the ash has even seeped into the water table below. When villagers draw water from a well, it's loaded with ash. 

Mindless Branding, Heartless CSRNow, 200 km away, Koyla has begun to replant forests, saying that they wish to replenish the greencover (being a mining company, this is exactly what they will want). They are busy planting gum trees. Simultaneously, Urja provides a room to an NGO on its premises. The NGO focuses on alternate farming methods. It encourages people to take to gum harvesting —because it is natural, cheap and a produce of the land. Farmers from around the coal mines, eventually, begin to migrate, as the NGO begins to focus on other varieties of plants and increases the output of the land. Who benefits? The coal company that is now even more free —as people leave the area — to plunder the land.

But I think all CSR activity is like this. Koyla will queer its pitch if it began to grow crops for farmers. People would say, "These guys are feeling guilty about displacing farmers." So, a coal mining company will invest in reforestation, not crop. 

What I am exemplifying is only hypothesis, but I have spent time with coal mining communities in the north. You cannot see the sun at 10 am because of the ash that settles in the air. It is that bad. People are being displaced from their homeland. They are being given compensation and new land (which is not good for farming). The power plant keeps manufacturing units running. The local people who leave are refugees — in their own land.
There has been untold misery in India in the name of modernisation and progress. No amount of CSR-ing or seven-day-old coffee is going to help them. It will take generations of education, re-skilling and re-fitting their lives that will help them adapt to a life outside their traditional homes. Now, do you see what Koyla's CSR is doing?

Omkar: So, are these the kind of communities then who get the city's hand-me-downs? This is extremely disturbing. Hence another thought arises: If Bx says seven-day-old coffee is not good enough for my consumer, because I, the vendor, will not give it to him, then I ask, to whom does the consumer of your seven-day-old belong? Mind you, you just gave it to the Red Cross or other charity. To whom does this consumer belong? 

Shabad: One, Bx is only saying that ‘seven-day-old coffee is not good enough for my consumer'. This is a product position and a way to ensure that Bx can charge premium pricing for its coffee. Two, if Bx wants, it can begin to offer the seven-day-old. People will buy it. There is always a market for expired food — and seven days is hardly that.

As for to whom does the consumer of seven-day-old belong? By default, to everyone. Bx just made the change by claiming they don't serve it.

Omkar: That means the charities and NGOs  who will get an assortment of used this and used that, continue to belong to no one! Fabulous! Here is CSR's definition unravelling: Does social responsibility NOT include ownership?

Shabad: You are just saying I believe in freshly roasted and brewed coffee. It's another way of making the same statement. Except this time, you put the metric seven on it, which is measurable. But then, to get to all that, you mindlessly went and put a heartless message on your sugar sachet and caused bitterness! And after all that, this is not even CSR. This is just an inept brand ego with no communication skills.

Classroom/syndicate discussion

Do companies who treat their customers well necessarily treat the needy communities well?

casestudymeera at gmail dot com