Top 10 Mistakes in Corporate Branding and CSR Programs


Sometimes, a corporate branding exercise works so well, it creates at least somewhat of a long-term halo effect for the organization – even when the company goes through troubled times.  GE’s “Green is Green” and BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” are two such examples.

However, too many other times, corporations launch corporate branding or CSR efforts that are less than successful. Here is my list of the top 10 mistakes I’ve seen:

  1. Not basing the program on what stakeholders want/expect from the company.

    It’s crucial to know what your stakeholders want from you before you launch a branding or CSR program.  And this shouldn’t be based on anecdotal evidence.  If you haven’t researched stakeholder sentiment before, at least consider some quantitative assessments – or review as much available secondary research as possible.  This is true about any program involving sustainability, corporate responsibility or purpose.

  2. Not having the CEO on board/playing a key role.

    Obviously, a CEO has an incredibly broad set of responsibilities, and huge demands on his/her time.  But, for any kind of corporate branding or CSR program to be effective, the CEO must be personally behind it – and willing to devote some time and messaging in support.

  3. Launching an initiative externally without gaining internal buy-in.

    Your organization has thousands of ambassadors – your employees.  Any external facing initiative must be sold in internally first.  Otherwise, it risks being dismissed (or even mocked) by the people who are most well situated to give it credibility and a boost.

  4. Failing to engage external storytellers/endorsers in the effort.

    It’s one thing to tell your own story – and you should.  It’s on a whole different (better) level when you get others from beyond your organization to tell it with you.  This could include NGOs, academics, community leaders and even trade associations.  External validation increases both the credibility and reach of any effort, and is, therefore, a “must-do.”

  5. Not having the program meet or address some issue beyond the company.

    As they say, “it’s not about you.”  Your initiative must be grounded and framed in addressing some broader societal or business need to be accepted.  Are you making a new sustainability commitment?  That’s great – but make sure its benefits have a broader societal impact. Offering to plant a tree for every sandwich sold doesn’t cut it. However, initiative should still be connected to your company’s purpose. As much as a program should be grounded and relevant to society more broadly, it is equally important that you maintain a connection to your company’s industry, values or mission. Continuing with the example above, planting a tree for every sandwich does not provide the same linkage as donating excess product to a food bank or an effort focused on sustainability for ingredients.

  6. Making it just a “marketing program” or divorcing it from marketing completely.

    Some good corporate branding and CSR efforts begin as marketing concepts, but they can’t remain there.  The best programs permeate every aspect of company communications, as well as many areas of operations.  By the same token, it’s a mistake to try to advance a corporate branding or CSR program without at least some marketing might (and dollars) being put behind it.

  7. Relying exclusively on media relations to get the word out.

    The media is a great way to get a program recognized and appreciated, but, especially with a shrinking pool of journalists, it can’t be the only way.  Speeches, awards, social media, videos, collateral and advertising should all be incorporated in your program.

  8. Not making operational/business changes/improvements/commitments to align with the initiative.

    You’re launching a green initiative, but your company is still emitting thousands of pounds of (treated) waste – and was fined recently.  Nothing undermines a company’s credibility faster.  The best corporate branding and CSR programs include not only the company’s past accomplishments and current state, but tangible steps the company is taking now that align with and drive the program.

  9. Failing to ensure competitors aren’t already doing more.

    You have come up with a great new program only to find out your arch competitor has already done more than you’re announcing.  To be sure, you can’t live your life by what your competitor may do, but, if you want to avoid unflattering/unfavorable comparisons, you have to take it into account when building your own program.

  10. Not building in feedback loops to guide the effectiveness of the program.

    You might have the most well-thought-out program ever, but if you don’t build it in a way that allows you to adjust it based on sentiment, you’re making a mistake.  Ask questions of your key stakeholders: is this working?  What else could/should we do – or do differently? Then, based on what they say, adjust.

What mistakes have you seen made in your organization or elsewhere?