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As customer attitudes change, “giving back” is no longer an option. It’s a necessity. Here’s how to make it good business, too.

When I was on my first startup, social responsibility was still the concern of a small tree-hugging minority. But today phrases such as “profits with purpose” and “conscious capitalism” are topping prediction and trend lists.

Most executives are aware of global social issues and want to make a difference. Here’s why that’s harder than it sounds:

• Expectations for businesses to operate responsibly are at their highest point in history
• Public satisfaction with the social impact of Corporate America is lower than ever
• In tough times, doing good becomes unsustainable if it doesn’t support the bottom line.

So how can your growing company do good in ways that are also good for business? Here’s how to start:

1. Tie your brand to your social mission as early as possible.

Start now. Create a brand that makes people feel good about affiliating with it.

• Cause-conscious consumers and employees see themselves as investing in you, not just exchanging money for products or time for a paycheck.
• The value your customers attribute to your products extends beyond tangible factors like function, durability, and quantity.
• If buying your product makes customers feel good and enhances their identity, you’ll be able to command a price that includes that value. You’ll also set the bar higher for your competitors.

Growing companies across all industries, such as Method, Annie’s Homegrown, YesTo, Tom’s Shoes, and Warby Parker, are setting new standards for sustainable operations, corporate giving, and smart branding. In doing so, they’re forcing big brand competitors to spend time and money rethinking their value propositions and marketing strategies.

In a great example of corporate conversion, Hershey’s recently committed to sourcing only certified cocoa for one of its product lines. Yes, it took months of pressure and a lot of negative PR, but Hershey’s is now benefiting from the switch. In a sense, they didn’t have much choice: Smaller fair trade chocolate companies like Sweet Riot present alternatives that feel better to consumers and can make tangible dents in the big brands’ numbers.

2. Spread the word

There are lots of ways to give back. You can:

• operate sustainably
• treat people well
• make environmentally friendly products
• give to worthy causes

No matter how you integrate social responsibility into your business, it’s important that you let people know right away. The earlier you communicate social responsibility as important parts of your value proposition, the better job they will do at differentiating your company, and the more value you will build as a result. If you put off being a good citizen until you think you can afford it, your customers will have already formed beliefs about your brand. Changing those perceptions is difficult and expensive.

3. Make your customers your partners

Perhaps the easiest way for most growing companies to be socially responsible is through giving. And if it’s done right, giving can do more than help good causes and create goodwill. It can drive real value for your business.

• Consumers are nearly twice as likely to buy or recommend a product if it’s affiliated with a cause they care about.
• Simply writing a check to a charity and advertising that you did it doesn’t engage consumers or inspire them to tell anyone about it.
• If a company’s giving isn’t integrated with business activities, it doesn’t directly boost the bottom line.

To create more value for their brands, Coke, Project RED and Starbucks have built interactive web experiences around their giving, working with their customers to make a positive impact. Pepsi and Chase let customers vote on the companies’ corporate giving, engaging them socially. Why not take it one leap forward? Drive greater business value by allowing consumers to choose where the cause dollars go and then directly drive purchases as a part of the process. Today’s consumers expect to be empowered and engaged socially. And when they’re empowered and engaged by your brand, they will purchase and become advocates for it, sending their friends and colleagues to buy from you too.

That’s a win for social good and a win for your business.