As part of our corporate social responsibility (CSR) interview series, we recently had the privilege of asking Rob Frederick, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Brown-Forman, a few questions about CSR.

Brown-Forman is a spirits and wine company with familiar brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Finlandia, Herradura, Fetzer, Bonterra and Sonoma-Cutrer. A big thank you to Rob (full bio found below) for taking the time to share his thoughts and ideas with us. This interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews with CSR executives.

1. What do you feel has driven the increased C-level focus on CSR initiatives in today’s business world?

I see several major drivers. Current or prospective employees want to work for a company that’s active on the responsibility front. It’s an important part of hiring and retaining the best talent. Consumers consider responsibility as part of their calculus in evaluating a company or brand. It helps to build strong and enduring brands. Investors need confidence and evidence that a company is managing responsibility-related risks and there aren’t any surprises lurking. The best companies are using responsibility as an opportunity to differentiate and establish better relationships and reputation.

2. What are the top three challenges facing you as a CSR executive over the next 12-18 months? Why?


First, breaking through the communications clutter. CSR is becoming a crowded space, with more news releases, more reports, more claims being made. Doing something authentic and telling the story in a way that garners attention is a challenge.

Second, influencing and empowering consumers. This is critical for companies whose greatest societal impact occurs in the use, or in our case abuse, of their product. Wide scale change requires much greater understanding of consumer attitudes and behaviors relating to responsibility (or irresponsibility) and what companies and brands can do to influence them for the better.

Third, engaging employees. So much of the success and benefit of CSR hinges on the internal culture and awareness – from the decisions and opportunities leaders in the company see and make to the degree to which employees embrace responsibility as part of their jobs. While CSR executives think about responsibility and sustainability all day, every day, the challenge is to get others in the company to incorporate it into their day to day.

3. What role, if any, do you see corporations playing in poverty alleviation in the developing world? Any specific examples at your company?

There is lots of opportunity in this area and given that poverty is at the root of many other social or environmental ills, there is also necessity. All of the work that is happening with tapping into markets at the base of the economic pyramid is very promising. So are efforts to develop more effective and entrepreneurial ways of giving and investing in impoverished communities. For Brown-Forman, which has a relatively small footprint in the developing world, many of our efforts have focused in our own backyard in Louisville, Kentucky. A good portion of our community relations focuses on social services, health and education, all of which improve economic circumstances directly or indirectly.

4. What recent CSR initiative or project are you most proud of, and why? How have you measured its success?

While it’s a local initiative, I would point to our partnership with CityScoot (www.cityscoot.com). CityScoot is a designated driver service that uses a collapsible scooter which goes in your trunk to get both you and your car home safely after a night out. It takes an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to one of Brown-Forman’s core CSR issues – drunk driving. It’s easy to measure awareness and usage and every ride they provide takes away the risk and potentially tragic consequences of driving under the influence. So far, Brown-Forman has invested in the marketing and growth of CityScoot and also established an employee program where all employees in our headquarters location of Louisville receive complimentary service.

5. Given the current economic climate, do you expect CSR/sustainability initiatives to take a back seat as corporations look to cut costs? Or do you see its role in corporate strategy continuing to become more important?

Once a company starts down the path of embedding CSR into its business strategy, there is no turning back. However, with the economic downturn, there will be a natural tendency to scrutinize and determine if responsibility initiatives are a “nice to have” or “need to have.” For some CSR executives, this will mean downscaling or delaying their ambitions. I believe the winners will be those that use more limited resources for the greatest good to the business and society. Responsibility commitment is often judged internally and externally during tough times so a company that makes significant progress these days will establish greater credibility and reap more rewards.

6. Any additional thoughts?

We’re definitely in a period of evolution with CSR. Some of the basics of the last wave, such as good measurement and reporting and stakeholder engagement, will remain important but I also believe companies will be facing a whole new set of complexities and expectations. Most notably, consumers, employees, investors and others are honing their ability to distinguish between fluff and the real stuff and there will be some shaking out of those who are doing CSR well and those who aren’t. CSR executives who often promote accountability are going to find themselves held even more accountable.

Rob Frederick
VP, Director of Corporate Responsibility
Brown-Forman Corporation

Throughout his work and educational experience, Rob has been a believer and advocate that business holds the power and possibility to bring about positive changes that are good for society and for the bottom line. He enjoys the challenge and opportunity of bringing sustainability to life inside of a company. At Brown-Forman, he is responsible for leading and deepening the company’s commitment to social responsibility and environmental stewardship in ways that support brand building, advance the company’s strategic imperatives and improve business performance.

Prior to joining Brown-Forman, Rob was a key driver of Ford Motor Company’s corporate citizenship and sustainability efforts. He has also been a consultant with ICF Consulting and worked for Weyerhaeuser.

He is a trustee of the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, chairs the DISCUS Environmental Task Force and is a member of the DISCUS Science Committee. He also serves on the board of the St. Francis School in Goshen, Kentucky.

Rob holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University and an MBA and MS in Natural Resources & Environment from University of Michigan, where he learned that it is indeed possible for activists and executives to find mutually beneficial common ground!

Tags: Brown-Forman, corporate social responsibility, csr, sustainability, sustainable development

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Replies to This Discussion

Great interview. I particularly liked the CityScoot initiative, never heard of such a service before.
Zingo seems to offer a similar solution, though doesn't look like DC yet.

Here's the website: www.callzingo.com
Thanks for sharing the information. Great insight.

"However, with the economic downturn, there will be a natural tendency to scrutinize and determine if responsibility initiatives are a “nice to have” or “need to have.” " This will be interesting in 2009: what will happen to this, how will companies react? Obviously "nice to have" would be a big step back but my believe is that companies unfortunately will consider it.
I think his point about about engaging employees is right on point. If they aren't onboard then it's almost like "what's the point". I think company's like Timberland do it well, they seem to hire very likeminded individuals into the company - although I guess that's easier given the fact that it's in the outdoor apparel industry.
I'd love to hear more about cutting through the clutter with communications. I'm curious if at a place like Brown-Forman, where they're obviously further along than many of us, has tried education programs across the employee base to try and do just what Mr. Frederick mentions - get people thinking like it's a part of their job - rather than just one person thinking about it at the top.

- Carrie
twitter.com/redcarrie
Just a heads up, we'll be relaunching the interview series in the coming weeks!

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