If you happen to travel through Shoreditch overground tube station you may have noticed the bike repair shop that Levi’s has set up just off Boxpark, the new pop-up shopping arcade. Opened earlier this month, the shop is giving free repairs to any cyclist who needs some bike maintenance and is free to drop by. The idea is fairly simple: commuters get a chance to have their bike ‘tuned’, while Levi’s have the opportunity to showcase their new 405 ‘commuters range’ for cyclists. This includes waterproof high-tech jeans and jackets that are designed specifically for cycling in.
Levi’s new shop seems to be the latest in a long and growing list of “downstream CSR” initiatives being implemented by major global brands (see Matthew Taylor’s 2011 annual lecture for more detail). In fact, it has some very close parallels with the Nike+ running platform. Here, the brand’s followers can join an online community of runners (now totalling some several million members), set running goals, get tips from coaches, take part in global challenges, download route maps and so on. What Nike, Levi’s and others have in common is that they are all seeking to build brand loyalty and sales while simultaneously shaping the behaviours of the people who use their products; in this case through running and cycling.
Broadly speaking, we can see this type of business-led behaviour change taking place on three different levels: products, networks and narratives. Nike is an example of a company that has combined all three to great effect. Their new ‘Fuelband’ distance tracker is an innovative new product helping runners to keep track of progress and stay motivated; their Nike+ community is a supportive network of athletes which is growing daily, propelled by their intelligent use of social media; and their well-crafted adverts (e.g. ‘the human chain’) are creating a compelling identity for their brand while inculcating a narrative of improvement and determination within their followers.
While the benefits of the downstream CSR model are increasingly apparent to large corporate brands, it is interesting to hear that consumers are also demanding that businesses begin to play a role in behaviour change. According to research undertaken by Havas Media last year, some 85 per cent of people now expect companies to get actively involved in promoting individual and collective wellbeing, quite a dramatic increase on the 15 per cent which said so in 2010.
These are promising signs for the growing movement of downstream CSR activities. However, my sense is that the real test of such an approach will be whether it is replicable among smaller firms and those which have a less compelling brand. In other words, is it only the likes of Apple, Nike, Levi’s and Procter & Gamble that can hold sway over consumer behaviours, or can local, place-based companies have an impact too? More importantly, is this kind of CSR something that SMEs and individual entrepreneurs are even aware of, or are willing and able to sign up to? Given that these smaller companies account for some 60 to 70 per cent of GDP across developed countries, it is perhaps important that we begin to spread the debate about brands and behaviour change beyond the usual suspects.
I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has some examples of how small companies are embedding downstream CSR within their practices.