Building Brand Identity Through Volunteerism

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has come to be known as a day of service or volunteering, and in honor of this, I wanted to explore how volunteerism is helping brands better define their image. More and more companies are aiming to articulate their identity around service in some way, rather than through high-dollar donations These companies actually take the time to give back to the communities in which they operate.

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Brands view the value of volunteerism as three-fold: for their employees, for their consumers and for their communities.

For employees, service can help them feel more engaged at work and allows them to incorporate personal and charitable passions into their careers. According to Deloitte’s most recent volunteerism survey, creating a culture of volunteerism in the workplace may boost morale, workplace atmosphere and brand perception. The survey found that 69 percent of respondents say they are not volunteering as much as they would like to, and of those, 62 percent say they cannot dedicate time during the day to volunteering.

With 70 percent of respondents saying that volunteer activities are more likely to boost employee morale than company-sponsored happy hours, it doesn’t make sense that only 38 percent of employers provide access to company-sponsored or coordinated volunteer programs.

When Starbucks announced in August 2018 plans to test a pilot program that allows employees to get their full salary and benefits while serving at nonprofit organizations in their communities for half of each work week, they made an investment in the value of giving back.

In a statement, Virginia Tenpenny, vice president of Global Social Impact for Starbucks and executive director of The Starbucks Foundation, noted, “the program is an innovative approach that combines work, service and partnerships, a model that will inform how we catalyze our partners and grantees to create enduring change in our communities.”

The value here is bigger and more specific than corporate social responsibility (CSR) as we’ve come to know it (e.g. high-dollar donations to nonprofits, corporate partnerships with advocacy organizations, politically-motivated issue campaigns on environmental issues). Starbucks’ model provides visible change to both the community and individual. Employees are incentivized to make a difference, which helps foster feelings of positivity toward the self and employer.

The second major value-add of corporate volunteerism is consumer attitude toward a company.

Take Salesforce, for example. The company offers 48 hours of volunteer time off and, to date, Suzanne DiBianca, the president of the Salesforce Foundation, told Fortune that the program’s efforts have translated into over a million volunteer hours, and $80 million in grants and Salesforce products donated to 25,000 programs.

With each of these elements of Salesforce’s volunteer strategy readily accessible and prevalent in Salesforce’s media coverage and content on their website, consumers begin to associate the company with their community service efforts.

When a corporate brand participates in service the community will see the company in a positive way. When they see advertisements or in-store products, they’ll associate that with all the good they’re trying to do and see past the office building on the corner.

Finally, and perhaps the most obvious benefit of a brand prioritizing corporate service, is that by giving back, companies have the capability to make measurable change in communities around the world. Global brands like Starbucks, with revenues in excess of $20 billion and a huge workforce, have all of the resources necessary to make large-scale, substantive change.

A great example of this is Jose Andres using his network to give back to communities. With his most recent pledge to provide discounted or free meals to federal workers impacted by the government shutdown, or his efforts to feed those in Puerto Rico suffering after Hurricane Maria, he’s not only building empathy for his brand but truly making a difference in people’s lives.

In the three ways I’ve outlined here, companies can make a measurable difference for their brand’s equity through volunteerism. Not only are they encouraging their surrounding community to embrace them by making a difference, but they’re also likely going to garner large amounts of media coverage, retain existing employees, and encourage new employees to join the team. In counseling any brand that’s interested in amplifying their public image, I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage volunteerism as a strong PR strategy.