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Marketing and Comms
New Report Reveals 86% of US Consumers Expect Companies to Act on Social, Environmental Issues

A new study by Cone Communications adds to the body of work that links consumer shopping decisions to corporate values. The 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study examines consumer attitudes, perceptions and behaviors around corporate social responsibility, as well as if and how companies should stand up for social injustices.

The study, which utilized benchmark data dating back to 1993, revealed that 87 percent of consumers said they’d purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about and more than 75 percent would refuse to purchase a product if they found out a company supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.

Most interestingly, the study considers consumer behavior in light of today’s political climate and shows that 67 percent of Americans believe progress on social and environmental issues will slow in the absence of government regulation — and their confidence in organizations to drive change is low. As a result, 43 percent of consumers believe individuals present the greatest potential to solve social and environmental issues, followed by nonprofits (18 percent), government (17 percent) and business (13 percent).

“The events over the past year have ignited a groundswell of activism on very divisive topics and Americans are questioning future progress. They are looking to companies to drive change on the issues they hold dear,” said Alison DaSilva, Executive VP of CSR Strategy at Cone Communications. “Now, consumers are no longer just asking, ‘What do you stand for,’ but also, ‘What do you stand up for?’”

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Consumers expect companies to do more than turn a profit and their definition of what it takes to be a responsible company is expanding. Americans prioritize a number of different business actions as important:

  • Being a good employer
  • Operating in a way that protects and benefits society and the environment
  • Creating products and services that ensure individual wellbeing
  • Investing in causes in local communities and around the globe
  • Standing up for important social justice issues

When asked about the most important responsible business practice, consumers identified being a good employer as the top priority — showing that consumers want to do business with companies that, first and foremost, do good for their own people.

“Being a good employer has always served companies well in terms of recruitment and retention, now those practices can also yield broader positive business benefits,” said DaSilva. “Companies should now showcase their internal efforts to enhance their reputation and gain crucial points in the eyes of consumers.”

However, when asked about the top issues for companies to address, economic development came out on top, trumping issues such as poverty, environment, human rights and education.

In regards to hot-button topics that are active in the news, job development topped the list (94 percent), continuing the theme of economic development. But consumers also felt companies had a role to play in other social justice concerns facing the United States today, including racial equality (87 percent) and women’s rights (84 percent). Other issues consumers want companies to address include:

  • Cost of higher education (81 percent)
  • Immigration (78 percent)
  • Climate change (76 percent)
  • Gun control (65 percent)
  • LGBTQ rights (64 percent)

And companies’ actions around these matters are factoring into consumers’ decision-making. Nearly three-quarters said they would stop purchasing a product from a company that shared a different perspective on one of these polarizing issues.

“Simply addressing issues within the business footprint is no longer going to cut it in the eyes of consumers,” said Whitney Dailey, Director of Marketing/Research & Insights at Cone Communications. “Today’s consumers expect companies to have a voice on oftentimes divisive issues and they’re willing to boycott if a company’s core beliefs don’t align with their own.”

“CSR is not a fad, a trend or ‘nice to have’. It’s a business imperative that must be authentic and seamlessly integrated into the brand value propositions.”

Over the past 12 months, over 50 percent of study participants said they have boycotted a company for irresponsible business actions or for supporting an issue contrary to their beliefs. But Americans aren’t just using their wallets to punish companies, they are also using their buying power to reward companies, by making a donation, purchasing a product with a benefit or buying a product because that company stood up for an issue they cared about.

The report also indicates that companies need to ramp up efforts to communicate their actions, commitments, successes and failures. Ninety percent of Americans say it’s okay if a company is not perfect, as long as it is honest. Strong, consistent narratives are essential to further gain credibility in the eyes of consumers and companies should look to take a multifaceted approach to communications. Seventy-nine percent of consumers say they are more likely to believe a company’s CSR commitments if they share their efforts along multiple channels.

“Consumers have spoken – their expectations of companies are high and CSR is a critical factor in decision-making,” said DaSilva. “For companies to gain attention and realize bottom-line benefits, they need to authentically build CSR into the brand experience — this means going beyond a CSR report, an ad campaign or page on the corporate website.”