What is community engagement? Actually, though.

Buzz words are everywhere. Social enterprise, fair trade, sustainability, green, eco-friendly, all natural, social responsibility, community engagement. All are examples of buzzwords that get thrown around in marketing campaigns and are sometimes even printed on physical products.

But talk is cheap. Actually, it’s the cheapest. Digging into what these words really mean takes time but it’s worth doing if you want to understand how these concepts impact businesses, supply chains, products and more.

Community engagement is just one of these buzzwords. Here we aim to unpack what it actually is and to break down what it looks like when done well (and not so well).


According to Merriam Webster community very simply put is…. “A body of unified individuals.” 

And engagement?  “Something (such as one's life or word) that offers backing to a cause or aim.”

If we swap “one’s life or word” for “one’s business” the definition becomes…“Something one’s business offers that backs a body of unified individuals” 

Pretty simple. Or so it seems.

Going beyond the literal

Backing your community is a great thing to do. But simply calling an action “community engagement” doesn’t make it so. Not all community engagement is created equal.

But don’t get us wrong, positively engaging with your community at any level has value. However as consumers with purchasing power, it’s important to recognize that overselling and overuse of the term happens all the time.

Let’s talk examples. They are also everywhere. 

Great community engagement: 

Is authentic. It isn’t always a massive movement or effort.

All brands and businesses have a target market. Some brands make an effort to engage with communities that fall outside of their target market because they recognize that the product is unattainable for some. For KEEN, a rugged outdoor footwear brand, that could’ve looked a lot like this:

  • Run a striking visual ad that talks about how the outdoors is for everyone.

  • A bit better…. Donate hiking boots to underprivileged kids. Post on social media about how KEEN helps kids get outside by giving them shoes.  

And while these two items have value they don’t authentically engage with the community. They check a box. This type of ‘one-off’ engagement doesn’t move the needle all that much.

So what did KEEN do? They started to use their business to make offers that authentically back a body of unified individuals. 

The KEEN Effect grant programme was created to “protect open spaces by empowering vulnerable communities.” KEEN does this by supporting projects that bring the world’s youth into the outdoors for education, adventure and stewardship. 

The programme includes both of the engagement examples listed above but it is built on authentic, consistent and accountable action from the company itself. KEEN donates gear, time, resources, knowledge, training and more to groups that might not normally have access to the outdoors and the education it can provide. They sets targets for their engagement and transparently report on progress. 

Grant recipient group ‘Takshanuk Watershed Council’ in Alaska gives kids an up close experience with local watersheds while also teaching them about how to protect these important natural systems.

Grant recipient group ‘Takshanuk Watershed Council’ in Alaska gives kids an up close experience with local watersheds while also teaching them about how to protect these important natural systems.

Since its inception the programme has helped 60,000 kids around the world get the gear AND the access they need to experience, enjoy and learn about the great outdoors.

Community engagement that isn’t so great:  

Feels “forced or tacked on” and often unfocused. Think that Pepsi x Kendall Jenner commercial you heard so much about last year. 

The commercial features Jenner at the front of a non-specific protest. She hands a cold Pepsi to crowd control police magically dissolving the crowd’s tension. Many felt the ad trivialized real protests like #BlackLivesMatter. 

Pepsi said they “were trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.” Sounds warm and fuzzy. But where do warm fuzzies get us? Not far. 

Pepsi attempted to engage with their consumer community by offering positive messaging. But amongst other issues with the ad, there wasn’t much real action behind the concept. The campaign came across as tone-deaf and flimsy. As we said before, talk is cheap.

If KEEN had run an ‘outdoors for all’ ad on TV and called it a day do you think those 60,000 kids would’ve gotten an enriched outdoor experience as a result? Probably not.

Real community engagement goes far beyond tokenism and ‘checking boxes’. Action and authenticity are what count.

How to get it right 

From what we’ve learned over the last year in our own work and from watching brands that get it right, we’ve come up with some concepts we think anyone can use to assess community engagement as it comes up. 

If you’re a consumer who exercises your purchasing power to impact change (it’s worth more than you might realize) you can use these concepts to tease apart which of your favourite brands really make it over the line and which brands fluff up just how engaged they really are.

If you’re a business owner or employee these concepts can help you assess your current community engagement or think about how you’d like to implement some. Not there yet? It’s ok. Starting somewhere is the most important piece.

CONSISTENCY: Is this community engagement consistent and does it take place over a period of time or is it a ‘one off’, ‘check-the-box’ type of engagement?

ACCOUNTABILITY: Is the company accountable for this engagement? Have they set targets for their community engagement and reported on those targets? KEEN, for example, reported on the number of grantees they’ve been able to help (60,000 kids) and the amount of time and access to the outdoors that has resulted in (11,000 hours total) over the span of 5 years. Since 2003 KEEN reports they have donated $17 million to grassroots organizations and causes through their grantee program and other similar efforts. 

AUTHENTICITY: This stuff can’t be faked. If the engagement is focused on ‘direct selling’ or feels ‘tacked on’ chances are it’s not authentic. Are the company’s words backed up by action? If a company’s community engagement is consistent and accountable, chances are it’s authentic too.

Now you know what ‘community engagement’ actually is, how to assess its authenticity and have a foundation from which to participate in (or even spearhead) great community engagement within your own circles and places of work… give it a go!






James Tapper