C&A’s most recent engagement campaign drew participation from 65% of its global workforce, earning a finalist spot in the EE Employee Engagement Awards

C&A defies engagement norms

Lessons from its Inspiring World employee engagement campaign

By Kimberly Manno Reott

Imagine you’re an hourly employee in retail apparel, handling a steady stream of customers in the hectic holiday rush. You cater to a wide range of demands, working at top speed to keep customers happy and the store in tip-top shape.

In the midst of all this, your employer interrupts your busy day and asks you to participate in the company’s latest “employee engagement campaign” — the opportunity to give back on a weighty social issue like sustainability or women’s empowerment. Do you roll your eyes, or do you embrace the chance to give back?

If you’re an employee of global retailer C&A, chances are you participate, eagerly. C&A’s most recent engagement campaign drew participation from 65% of its global workforce, earning a finalist spot in the EE Employee Engagement Awards. Within the high-churn, fast-paced retail apparel sector where annual employee turnover can top 60%, this kind of employee engagement is practically unheard of. Yet, for C&A, it’s become the norm.

The campaign, a sustainability initiative called “Inspiring World,” was launched by C&A earlier this year after an intensive design collaboration with Context Partners. Its success holds some powerful lessons for companies looking to deepen loyalty with their most important asset — their workforce.

Stand for something (and employees will, too)

“Purpose” is something companies talk about a lot these days, and it’s true that standing for something can be a significant market differentiator. But for purpose to earn buy-in and, most importantly, sustained engagement with your most important audiences, it has to be more than a buzzword.

Fortunately, C&A’s socially responsible underpinnings are strong. A family-run business since the mid-nineteenth century, it has built a reputation over many decades for treating employees well and doing right by the environment. For example:

  • The Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good Centre that C&A co-founded is a global leader in responsible apparel practices, whether by reducing pollutants in manufacturing or improving working conditions in factories.
  • C&A is the world’s largest purchaser of organic cotton, and the viscose in its garments is made entirely of pulp sourced from sustainably managed forests.
  • In Brazil, the Instituto de C&A partners with a range of nonprofits to address issues like child labor, immigrant rights and domestic violence among workers.

All this means that when C&A launches an employee engagement campaign, it’s not a one-off effort, but part of an ongoing expression of its values. Its “Inspiring Women” campaign, stretching from 2015 to 2017, asked C&A’s primarily female workforce to share images and memories of women who’d impacted their lives. The campaign earned participation rates of up to 47%. This far exceeds the 20% participation norm most companies enjoy, and points to the level of trust C&A had already earned.

Look for the threads that bind

In 2018, when C&A shifted the focus of its campaign from women’s empowerment to sustainability, finding a common thread with its workforce was a bit more challenging. Few employees could argue with the benefit of sustainable fashion, but this storyline can get dauntingly technical in a hurry.

We spent time with employees themselves, to understand their relationship to the company, their feelings on environmental issues and the role they thought C&A should play in addressing them. Our process of discovery needed to help C&A personalize environmental sustainability across a geographically and culturally diverse audience. No small feat.

And it’s because this is so challenging that so many brands skip this discovery step altogether. Instead, employee engagement is a strictly top-down effort. A brand department or corporate responsibility team builds a campaign tied to an issue or cause the company deems important. Then they push their message at employees — an approach we’ve come to call “command and control.” There’s a reason command and control campaigns struggle to surpass a 20% participation rate.

Design with employees, not for them

C&A’s team knew they wanted a sustainability-oriented campaign for 2018, but beyond that, they were eager to hear how their employees wanted to participate. Following our discovery period, we landed on a few campaign prototypes intended to meet employees “where they were,” with wide appeal. C&A empowered employees to choose the final campaign by actively involving them in the design process.

We formed hands-on partnerships with C&A managers inside several markets, to elicit firsthand knowledge of the local employee community and obtain the access and influence needed to support widespread participation. These managers helped us test prototypes within their markets and native languages, adapt them and test them again.

This community-centered approach gave the team an unusually rich set of insights to draw from to choose the final campaign design — namely, it revealed the threads of belief and value that tie the global C&A community together, across 27 countries, 12 different languages and thousands of individuals.

The campaign solicited responses to a single question: “What’s your dream for a better world?”

Employees could reply by submitting photos, videos or a written narrative, which earned them the opportunity to vote for one global charity and two local charities to receive funding from the C&A Foundation. This had a dual advantage: empowering workers to effect positive change in their backyard while connecting their action to a larger, global purpose.

The result? The C&A team launched and managed the campaign with fantastic success. Forty-five charities received over one million euros in donations from the C&A Foundation, benefitting more than 250,000 people — all selected by the employees themselves.

Remember, engagement is a relationship

Few can argue with the value of nurturing a highly engaged, loyal workforce. But far too often, organizations miss the mark. “To engage” is a verb — it requires ongoing investment, values alignment and a commitment to building and nurturing a long-term relationship.

C&A has spent decades investing in trust-building, living its values and actively listening to and rewarding employees. When it launched Inspiring World, the campaign felt natural, even obvious to employees. Of course C&A cares about the environment, and of course its employees want to be a part of that.

Translating a complex idea into a universally appealing campaign that mobilized 65% of its global workforce speaks to C&A’s commitment to meet employees where they already are. The company invested time and resources to find out what matters to its employees on a day-to-day basis, what they aspire to and what changes they’d like to see in the world — and designed from there. Great lessons for any brand.

KIMBERLY MANNO REOTT is a co-founder of Context Partners, where she works tirelessly to forge global networks and deliver exceptional value to her corporate and global philanthropy clients. Drawing on her previous work with McKinsey and Ashoka in Washington, DC, she elegantly builds cross-sector bonds at the intersection of business, philanthropy and government.