8:30am

Mon December 12, 2011
Company Town

Socially Good Business: Making the business case for "doing good"

From toilet paper to soda pop, more and more companies are testing whether "doing good" can be good for the bottom line.

The idea behind corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is that consumers reward good corporate citizens - that connecting with someone's values is the best way to create a loyal customer.

Ben & Jerry's has long been on the leading edge of the CSR movement.

Now a Ben & Jerry's alum wants to spread that message to Rochester and beyond.

"To me it's 'values-led business'," says Liz Brenna, the 26-year-old founder of CSR consulting firm Socially Good Business.

"It's creating a relationship with your consumers based on their values," the Rochester native adds. "I mean, what stronger way to connect with consumers than on such a core level?"

"All the answers"

Brenna's passion for CSR began at Ithaca College, when social entrepreneur Jeff Furman spoke in one of her classes.

"They call him 'the ampersand in Ben & Jerry's,' " Brenna says. "I just remember sitting there and thinking, 'Oh my god, this guy has all the answers'."

"And I just fell in love with this theory of business having the responsibility to give back to the community," says Brenna.

Soon the ice cream maker was her go-to company for case studies; by graduation, she knew the business forward and back; and after following her boyfriend to medical school in Vermont, she quickly landed a job at Ben & Jerry's HQ in South Burlington.

When she first met Jerry, Brenna was so "star struck" she accidentally hung up the phone on someone.

Wanting in on the secret

After a brief stint in the international department of Ben & Jerry's, Brenna was shifted over into public relations.

That's when she started getting the calls.

"So many business owners and brands would call us and basically ask how we did such a great job being such a good company," Brenna says.

She says the business owners wanted to know how Ben & Jerry's was so successful at championing social and environmental causes. They also wanted to know how it was impacting the bottom line.

The company doesn't publish sales data, but according to Brenna, "we did see a correlation between our social initiatives and sales increases."

"And so it kind of occurred to me that there really weren't a lot of resources out there for for-profit businesses who want to join this movement," Brenna says. "So that's when I thought, 'You know what, I need to do this.' "

So three months ago, that's what she did.

Bootstrapping

After about four years at Ben & Jerry's, Brenna and her boyfriend (now a resident at Strong) moved back to Rochester.

With Socially Good Business, Brenna wants to take what she has learned at Ben & Jerry's and apply it to other companies.

Basically, she wants to find your company's version of a low-emissions freezer or a specialty flavor that benefits a good cause.

"Consumers are demanding it," says Brenna. "So to be as genuine about it and to get the most value out of it, I say make a commitment first."

Socially Good Business helps companies draft a mission statement, devise initiatives and consult all the way through to implementation, Brenna says.

Tough sell

Still, Brenna admits it's a tough time to be launching a newfangled consulting firm.

She says it's an easier sell than it would've been a couple of years ago, but it's still hard to get companies to sign on the dotted line.

"The level that they're at right now, especially in this economy, is: 'Show me the numbers. Why do I want to invest this money? Why do I want to do this?' " says Brenna.

Proving return-on-investment, or ROI, is the name of the game.

But, the way Brenna sees it, the market is increasingly rewarding business leaders who get out in front of emerging trends.

"Eight years ago, nobody knew what 'organic' meant, nobody knew how to use social media," says Brenna. "It was the companies that believed in it, who said, 'You know what, I don't need any of that data, I'm going to do this because I believe in it.' They're the ones that were the trailblazers - and everybody followed them."

Three months in, the one-woman firm has one client - a Rochester hotel. But Brenna's optimistic more will follow.

And she says if all she accomplishes is just spreading the word about ways businesses can do good, then she's fine with that.

"This is what I'm passionate about," says Brenna. "This is what I believe in. And I'm just kinda trying to do my thing."

Know of a Rochester area business that would make for a cool Company Town profile? Drop us a line.