What NPR's 'Serial' Can Teach Us About Social Responsibility
In October 2014, NPR producer Sarah Koenig released Serial, an addictive crime-drama podcast that enraptured listeners. From the outset, it seemed Serial’s aim was to exonerate Adnan Syed, the show’s protagonist (or antagonist), accused of murdering his high school girlfriend. While the mystery remains unsolved, Koenig’s documentary series succeeded in exposing Syed’s unfair trial for what it was. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that NPR resides near the top of BAV’s list of the most Socially Responsible brands. It makes sense, too, that NPR is considered more Socially Responsible than 99% of brands. Success on Social Responsibility depends on whether a brand does good—nothing else matters. Right?
Probably not. The dominant narratives of branding success on Social Responsibility are, at best, incomplete. In reality, brands don’t achieve these sorts of distinctions on merit alone, but as a result of various covert advantages. The main objective here is to divulge one of those hidden advantages to give brands a more accurate understanding of how they can earn due credit on Social Responsibility.
When BAV examined the most Socially Responsible brands of 2015, we noticed that Wal-Mart (a brand that The Chronicle of Philanthropy once reported as the second most charitable company) was actually the biggest loser on Socially Responsible perceptions since 2010.
What caused Wal-Mart to slip? According to BAV data, the problem was Wal-Mart’s increasingly “traditional” reputation. Because while consumers perceived Wal-Mart as 19% more traditional in 2015 than in 2010, they also reported that traditional perceptions were adversely impacting perceived Social Responsibility. Instead, consumers reported, “independent” perceptions were more important.
When we say, therefore, that NPR was one of the most Socially Responsible brands of 2015, we are saying that it was Socially Responsible not because of plain-old CSR initiatives but (at least in part) because the brand did something that was against the grain in precisely the year that independence was identified with Social Responsibility. Conversely, it’s not hard to imagine that if NPR’s Serial had pursued a more traditional narrative (like an old-style whodunit series), the brand wouldn’t have earned such distinction.
BAV data suggests that there are specific, but changing, drivers that earn brands credit for their CSR initiatives. Last year’s key to being seen as Socially Responsible, in other words, lied with being seen as independent and fighting the tide. But the nature of trends is to change constantly. So with findings like these, we should recognize that a new CSR trend might already underway.