Campbell employees help plant trees at a park near the Ben Franklin Bridge.

Incorporating social initiatives and ethical standards became a mainstream idea for business in the early 2000s to attract attention and promote brand loyalty. Since then, the market of corporate social responsibility (CSR) claims has become oversaturated.

Consumers often get confused by the myriad claims that now appear on products. For example, Mintel’s 2015 report found consumers are confused by and don’t truly trust claims like fair trade. Sixty-eight per cent of adults said they were confused by ethical icons on products, and 61% believed there should be more regulation on ethical claims. In addition, 42% of consumers perceive that many claims are self-serving rather than sincere initiatives. To break through the noise, businesses need to rely on authenticity. Mintel has found that C.S.R. claims are more effective if they correlate to a brand’s identity.

According to Mintel, the larger the company, the more it will struggle with an image problem in the minds of today’s consumers. The market research firm reported that 49% of consumers trust small companies to “do the right thing” vs. just 36% for big companies. Larger companies have fought and, in some cases, found ways to try to change that perception.

The Campbell Soup Co. launched, a web portal that allows visitors to understand the ingredients that end up in its products, from chicken noodle soup to Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies. This level of transparency gives consumers a tool to understand how various foods gain that crunch, sweetness or texture.

“Campbell also works to maintain relationships with partners and stakeholder groups by providing ongoing education sessions and general information sharing,” Ms. Maltenfort said. For example, the C.S.R. team recently visited with farmers in Maryland to discuss sustainable agriculture processes. Clif also emphasizes broadcasting its purpose as a business in everything it does. Consumers and other stakeholders can see its values at trade shows and events where the company samples its products to events it sponsors, and even on its buildings and the packaging on Clif Bars. Clif also partners with athletes who are aligned with the brand and its standards, and they serve as brand advocates who can authentically share their common mission with fans and consumers.

“It’s essential to listen to your consumers and other audiences and engage in two-way conversations with them — in person and via social media,” said Thao Pham, vice-president of community and executive director of the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

Consumers have access to more information today than ever before and are more likely to punish the “bad” a company does rather than reward the good. Mintel’s “Ethical Consumer, U.S. — July 2015” report showed that 56% of consumers are likely to stop buying a product if they perceive the manufacturer as unethical, and 23% said that would take to social media to share that information. Consumers feel like they are doing something good when they boycott a “bad” brand.
Volunteers meal pack during a Clif Bar & Co. volunteer day. 

This is why building a clear and meaningful C.S.R. strategy is so important. The perception of being ethical, fair and sustainable protects many companies from potential pitfalls in the minds of consumers. A company can’t afford to be blind to its actions and how they impact people, communities or the planet,” Ms. Pham said. “As a food producer, we think about sourcing and the fragility of some of the places we grow our food. We also consider the way we treat our people, especially in fields like manufacturing where there’s historically a high turnover rate. By incorporating social responsibility into every aspect of our business, we’re able to pay our people a living wage, which helps to create consistency across the business.”

Clif’s culture of C.S.R. is the company’s bottom line, Ms. Pham said. Each of its five aspirations — sustaining business, brands, people, community and the planet — is equally weighted, meaning sustaining the business is just as important as sustaining the community. Employees have goals in each aspiration that they are measured against, and compensation is determined by how well they and the company do in each area.

Campbell’s C.S.R. portfolio focuses on health and well-being, sustainability, community impact, supply chain responsibility, ingredient traceability, human rights, transparency and purpose.

“C.S.R. efforts help businesses remain competitive and differentiated, control costs inside the company and along the supply chain, and build resiliency into the future,” said Megan Maltenfort, Campbell Soup’s senior manager, C.S.R. “Investments in C.S.R. activities positively influence corporate culture to attract and retain talent and also help in tracing supply chains to mitigate environmental and social risks.”

She added that consumers care about where their food comes from and how it is grown, and C.S.R. efforts help increase transparency for consumers, which builds trust. And that translates to loyalty, which keeps consumers coming back for more.

Making C.S.R. a part of a company’s DNA is a key to success in today’s market, but leadership and employees must fully embrace it. When social responsibility is authentic, it will resonate in the marketplace.