The following is a guest post by Tola Alade-Lambo, vice president of food safety and quality at Ferrara.
It’s not enough for companies to have business objectives. Studies tell us that as market demographics change and skew younger, consumers have become far more socially conscious and expect the same of the companies they buy from. Savvy CPGs are recognizing that tying their corporate brand identities to action on issues like inequity positively affects consumer sentiment and corporate brand loyalty.
While inequity is a global issue, we have an obligation to look at it from a local perspective as well. Companies of all sizes are tied to the communities where they operate. Community outreach programs can give them a stronger corporate brand purpose, demonstrating their concern for a better world. Not all companies have a well thought-out strategy to activate their corporate values, but they have a resource close at hand to explore their social purpose: their own employees.
Workers who band together in affinity groups or on employee councils have already made a commitment to activate change. An affinity group is built around a shared identity or interest, such as gender, ethnicity or ability. At Ferrara, we started with Ferrara Women Who Lead. Now we have many Business Resource Groups (BRGs), including BE!, our Black BRG; Evoke Pride, which is LGBTQ+; HAAPI (Heritage of Asian American and Pacific Islanders); and ¡UNIDOS! for Hispanic/Latinx associates.
Increasingly, affinity groups also assemble around broader identities and issues. The Ferrara Veterans Network formed around military service. Emerge drew multigenerational perspectives to drive mentoring and corporate brand activation strategies. InAWE, our newest BRG, took on both work/life balance and accessibility issues. Each group has an executive sponsor, who is an adviser within the group and an advocate in corporate leadership.
Making affinity groups allies
Often, employees join a specific affinity group for which they already have a passion and the cause resonates with them deeply and personally. Here are initiatives where these groups can enhance corporate brand activation or contribute to company goals:
Volunteering. Affinity group members bring their community contacts to bear in identifying and advocating for local nonprofit partners. Direct involvement helps BE! and ¡UNIDOS! members represent opportunities in the community. Volunteer outreach heightens employee awareness of community issues and provides ways to give back. Outreach efforts also reflect positively on the company and give employees a deeper sense of purpose.
Community philanthropy. Wendy’s restaurants opened the grant-making process to affinity groups, allowing each to nominate an organization aligned with Wendy’s giving strategy. In the process, affinity groups broadened founder Dave Thomas’ support of foster care to a range of youth and family services. Companies can provide support financially or in product donation — a great option for food manufacturing companies.
Corporate and product brand identity. Employees are consumers, too. Their diverse cultures and interests provide a window into consumer sentiment and the motivations behind choice. Employees give marketers new insights into brand awareness and engagement, which can ultimately lead to deeper consumer connection. As a product sounding board, affinity groups helped make flavor and packaging choices more relevant and inclusive.
Workplace recruitment. Working with youth is not just a passion project in many workplaces. Line employees increasingly need a grounding in STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics). Ferrara employees give classroom speeches and coach high school students to be entrepreneurs. Affinity groups that support high school and college STEM partnerships model these career choices and produce a stream of entry-level interns and recruits.
Workforce retention. Affinity group members are naturally relationship builders, and they’ve established trust within their groups. Ferrara’s BRGs plug into the company’s mentorship program, Sweet Pair. Connections with colleagues impact job satisfaction and quality of life. They also make it easier to adapt and thrive in a corporate environment that may seem foreign, especially for those new to professional settings.
How affinity groups can engage community partners
For companies that want to level up their community outreach, affinity groups can open doors. Ferrara BRGs developed a framework for building relationships that endure. Here are some best practices:
- Be clear about goals. Discuss the company’s objectives in creating a community partnership. Should the focus be on education, recruitment or some other outcome? Will the company be the key partner or one of many? Should the community organization be near company locations or national in scope? How many events can you do in a certain month or quarter?
- Analyze potential partners. Create a matrix of objectives for assessing each community organization. Enter the defined goals in a spreadsheet, decide which values are most important and rank organizations based on these criteria. Finally, engage with as many highly rated organizations as budget and bandwidth allow.
- Designate a point person. Several affinity groups may be active in the community, but they’ll need to work jointly to establish partner relationships. A single go-to contact will build trust and consistency over multiple engagements or annual campaigns. This also ensures that the partner organization feels valued and respected.
- Leave agendas behind. Nonprofits look to companies as a resource to scale their efforts. As much as they can use financial support, what is more important is the consistency and presence of your organization as well as being in tune with the needs of the nonprofit. Be open to what partners need and what they want to get out of it. Don't make promises you can't keep.
- Measure impact. Set a procedure to evaluate community relationships and make sure they meet expectations. Are volunteer participation goals being met? Is the organization prompt in communicating? Can the nonprofit accept in-kind donations? Are you able to hire through this organization? How many people does the initiative serve? Open a survey at the end of each event and look for ways to improve quality.
Encouraging a mission in the community has benefits that reach across the business: building corporate brand loyalty, energizing employees, building teamwork skills and attracting new talent. Being thoughtful and supportive of these community engagements is the key to their success.