Q: What are the best practices for marketing my company's social responsibility?

A: Increasingly, customers (and employees) evaluate companies and their products on what companies stand for and not just what features and benefits their products offer. This makes effectively communicating a company's commitment to social responsibility a modern imperative. Companies must show their authenticity rather than use social responsibility as a feature in their marketing. This means leveraging one of their best assets in communicating their culture and commitment around social responsibility — their employees. Employees live the company culture and can tell the story of how the company lives its social responsibility.

Corporate efforts at social responsibility tend to evolve over time, typically starting with a commitment to meeting a firm's various legal obligations. Both from an operational and reputational perspective, it makes sense for companies to follow the laws governing their business. These laws include regulations related to how a company treats its employees, their customers and their communities. In communicating these efforts, it is important to start with internal marketing to employees. Positioning legal compliance as a core value shows the company's respect for its internal and external stakeholders.

Companies typically next look for opportunities to alter parts of their operations to increase their social responsibility in ways that improve their operating efficiency. Firms need to be careful not to overstate the impact of their efforts at social responsibility. Involving employees in external communications efforts to develop and deliver messages will help companies maintain their authenticity by making social responsibility a component of the company's brand and culture, rather than a product feature.

Companies that fully embrace social responsibility must typically alter their business model and practices. They go beyond legal compliance and limited operational changes. Instead, they redesign what they offer and how they deliver value to customers and other stakeholders. Social responsibility guides decision-making throughout the organization. For these companies, their internal and external messaging is built on the aspects of social responsibility they have embraced. Employees who buy into that culture become valuable spokespeople for a company's social responsibility efforts and accomplishments.

David Alexander is an associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.