Versaic Interviews Lisa Manley, Executive Vice President, Cone Communications

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Versaic Interviews Lisa Manley, Executive Vice President, Cone Communications

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Versaic talks #CSR with @Cone EVP Lisa Manley: #brandstrategy #leadership #communications
Tuesday, July 19, 2016 - 1:35pm


Lisa is a seasoned sustainability professional with nearly 20 years of experience. As a leader of Cone Communication’s CR Strategy group, her infectious passion for sustainability and social impact energizes the award-winning practice. Lisa and her team collaborate with clients including Ben & Jerry's, Converse, Northwestern Mutual, PwC, Timberland, US Bank, VISA and others to develop and activate their CR strategies. Additionally, Lisa has extensive client-side experience after serving as Group Director for The Coca-Cola Company’s sustainability communications team, where she led worldwide corporate communications and stakeholder engagement in areas of water stewardship, climate protection, sustainable packaging, women’s economic empowerment, and active healthy living.

Versaic: Why should companies invest in CSR?

Lisa: There are a number of business drivers to invest in CSR.

• Cost savings: Smart CSR strategies have been proven to yield operational and supply chain savings.
• Risk reduction: CSR is typically the other side of the risk coin. Water, climate, waste, unfair wages, discrimination and worker safety all produce risks for companies. Targeted CSR initiatives help to alleviate those risks.
• Employee recruitment and engagement: Just about every industry is worried about maintaining the talent needed to grow in the future.

CSR is a strategy for engaging employees and helping them feel good about where they work. Companies that have engaged, proud and satisfied employees are those with people who work harder and stay in their jobs longer. Importantly, the companies that truly put CSR at the core of their business model also become magnets for the next generation of talent.

Versaic: What brand and marketing value can CSR and Sustainability Initiatives bring?

Lisa: For decades, marketers have focused on satisfying two basic needs with their brand propositions. The first is a need for rationality and the second is an emotional need. I believe a third is evolving: a societal need.

Companies today spend too much time talking internally about profit and externally about products. Consumers are not motivated by either. They expect companies to make good stuff and deliver good service. What also matters is that companies treat their employees well. They work to protect the environment. They employ ethical business practices and they’re transparent about what they do and how they do it.

When a brand or company demonstrates that it’s improving lives and impacting society positively, purchase intent increases, as does a willingness to defend the brand and a desire to share information about it. It’s a brand-building trifecta.

Versaic: What advice do you have for brand marketers who are trying to make CSR or sustainability an essential part of the business?

Lisa: Inevitably, you will face naysayers who don’t believe that CSR will make a difference in business. Have the courage and come prepared to educate your peers on the impact CSR can make in your company. Now, more than ever before, the time is right to focus on CSR. The rise of empowered Millennials and their expectations of business have created the demand in the marketplace for CSR. It’s time for brands to respond.

Trust in the data – we know many companies like Unilever, Target, Starbucks and Marks & Spencer, have reaped benefits from aligning themselves with responsible business practices. But understand it’s not a race, either. Today’s consumer doesn’t expect perfection; they expect transparency. Communicate openly about your vision, your plan to be a more sustainable business and all of the successes and challenges along the way. Consumers will reward you by acting as brand champions and voting with their hearts, minds and, I believe, their wallets.

Versaic: What are the unexpected benefits or outcomes that you have seen for companies that have implemented CSR Programs successfully? 

Lisa: In the past, executives have viewed CSR as a nice-to-do element of their responsibilities. But as customers, employees and consumers increasingly place more importance on holding companies accountable for their social and environmental impacts, many senior leaders have embraced CSR as central to their overall business strategies. This has helped them creatively address key business issues. And they are beginning to see the return on their investments.

Take Unilever, for example. Through its implementation of the Sustainable Living Plan, the company has achieved market share growth and increased profits. By being a responsible, sustainable business, Unilever saved money (energy, packaging, etc.), won over consumers, fostered innovation and has managed to inspire and engage employees. In fact, for Unilever, the business case for sustainability couldn't be clearer: chief executive Paul Polman recently revealed that the company’s Sustainable Living brands accounted for half of the company’s growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business. Additionally, Polman is convinced that Unilever turned into a magnet for recruiting and retaining workers because it is considered a place of purpose. Last year, the company saw a 65 percent rise in job applications from American college students compared to 2013.

Simply put, doing good is good for business.

Versaic: What are some of your favorite CSR brands and what makes their programs so effective?

Lisa: Oh, boy, I do have some favorites:

  • Innocent – This UK-based company has gone from a small start-up to a multi-million-pound business in a little over a decade. Its branding is often held up as a shining example of how to get food copywriting and marketing right, and CSR is at the heart of what makes them unique. Innocent’s approach to CSR is centered on recognizing that they “sure aren’t perfect but are trying to do the right thing.” The brand’s conversational, friendly tone makes its commitments relatable and easy to understand.
  • Patagonia – Patagonia has made it clear that sustainability is core to what they do and who they are as a brand. Their stuff may be more expensive than other outdoor brands, but the people who buy it use it for years – I have Patagonia stuff that I still wear 20+ years after purchase. It looks and performs as well today as it did when I first bought it. The brand’s authenticity and transparency have shined through its bold commitments and campaigns over the years, and its CSR efforts feel truly genuine to the brand.
  • Ben & Jerry's – I’m currently reading Ice Cream Social and I love how Ben & Jerrys has worked (and struggled) to put their social mission at the core of their business from the very start. Reading about the struggles of a company committed to a triple bottom line before anyone knew what that meant is absolutely fascinating!
  • Coca-Cola – Having had the pleasure of leading Coca-Cola’s sustainability communications team, I have seen firsthand how the company has become a true leader on water stewardship over the years. It is a company that understands the value of water, respects it as one of the most precious global resources and works vigorously to conserve and protect it across the world.
  • Mars – A historically quiet company, but one that is doing impressive things to advance sustainable business practices. They’re a company truly putting their principles into action.

Versaic: What are the 3 most important ways companies measure the success and how does that lead to value in the business?

Lisa: Cost savings are the easiest way to measure the success of CSR initiatives. Using less energy, packaging material or water (where the cost of water is relevant) yields cost savings.  

Customer preference is another important measure. More and more customers (think Target, Walmart, and others) are surveying their suppliers to assess the sustainability of their products. These customers are beginning to toy with preferential in-store placements and even consumer-facing indexes that will, over time, yield value to those brands that embrace sustainability.

Employee engagement is a third area that is showing opportunity for those companies and brands focused on CSR. A growing number of people want to work for companies that put social and environmental values at the heart of their enterprise. Companies that do this, reap the value of enhanced recruitment and improved retention.

Versaic: How can companies truly differentiate themselves in how they communicate their CSR initiatives and results?

Lisa: Too many companies dabble in CSR communications. They may support a cause in good times, but not when things get tight. That means they miss the value and opportunity of a sustained focus.

It’s important to make CSR communications routine for your brand across all channels; align it with company values and create a unified, cohesive voice.

Find new, relevant and interesting ways to talk about your CSR efforts through social, digital and online platforms. Plenty of brands are finding that CSR communications outperform pure-play product communications on social. But they’re scared to truly go big. I say, take off the training wheels and give it a ride.

Versaic: What tips can you share with companies who would like to increase the impact of their CSR programs?

Lisa: First focus on what's material.  It surprises me that we still have so many programs and initiatives that are personality-driven versus business driven.

Next, have a POV – stand for something that makes sense for your business or brand and stick to it over time.

Maximize use of social media/channels. Companies are dabbling with activating CSR messaging in their social communications and it is yielding way more value than they expect. Trust it, go big!

Last, but not least, engage employees early on and do stuff that inspires and engages them. Inspiring and engaging employees as your biggest cheerleaders and advocates will be key in building long-term success for your CSR programs.

Versaic: Where do you see CSR going? What is going to be important 3 years from now?

Lisa: Supply chain will be a key area of engagement – specifically how companies are engaging and reporting/maintaining transparency across the entirety of their supply chains.

We’re going to witness a pivot from environmental stewardship to social stewardship. That doesn’t mean environmental stewardship takes a back seat. It means companies will be expected to focus equally on things like worker safety, anti-discrimination, fair wages and more.
I also think we’ll continue to see a movement toward putting purpose or corporate responsibility at the center of employee engagement -- converting employees to true ambassadors. (Communicators say you have to say something again and again for it to stick, hopefully this theme has come through in this Q&A)

Last, but not least, I think we’ll see more brands standing for something bigger than their products or services – we’re going to see more activist brands. Brands taking stands on environmental and social issues and using the power of their marketing and communications channels to advocate for a more sustainable world.

Keywords: Media & Communications | Business & Trade | Cone Communications | Diversity & Human Resources | Education | Finance & Socially Responsible Investment | Lisa Manley | Philanthropy | Technology | Versaic