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Walking the Talk
Harris Poll:
Consumers Split on Companies' Social Responsibility Motivations

Long gone are the days when acting in a socially responsible manner was optional. Consumers now demand it and expectations are shifting to include how companies can create social value for stakeholders across the value chain. The annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient, which quantifies reputation ratings for the 100 most visible companies in the U.S., as perceived by the general public, provides a glimpse at how companies are stacking up in the changing corporate reputation landscape. In its latest study, U.S. consumers rated Wegmans, Publix Super Markets, Amazon, Tesla and USAA as the top companies for corporate responsibility efforts, with Lowe’s, UPS and L.L. Bean also receiving “excellent” CSR ratings.

Not surprisingly, Monsanto, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs scored the bottom three spots on the list.

Twenty-three thousand consumers were asked to rate 100 companies in the U.S. on social responsibility attributes such as: environmental responsibility, community responsibility and support of good causes.

This year’s report echoed some of the findings of a recent study by Cone Communications, which points to a marked mistrust amongst consumers regarding the nature of motivations behind companies’ CSR efforts. According to The Harris Poll, forty percent of surveyed consumers said that they believe companies are motivated to engage in social responsibility activities for the wrong reasons. Many believe they are driven by the possibility of bolstering their image and capitalizing on new publicity opportunities and are not truly focused on the effectiveness of their CSR efforts. Conversely, forty-five percent of consumers agree that companies develop corporate social responsibility programs because it is the role they believe they should play as leaders in their communities and are primarily motivated by their responsibility to do what’s right.

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The key to bridging this gap? Authenticity. “Not only is it important to act in a social responsible manner, but companies’ actions must be authentic and true to your company’s values,” said Salomon. “Fake it and consumers see right through your ulterior motives, risking negative marks against your corporate reputation.”

Eight companies out of the 100 measured achieved an “excellent” rating this year, up from four in 2016 and zero in 2010. This is the third consecutive year that Publix Super Markets scored an “excellent” social responsibility rating and the second for Wegmans. USAA has achieved “excellent” ratings three times in total and it’s the second consecutive year for both USAA and Amazon. This is the first time Tesla, Lowe’s, UPS and L.L. Bean have earned the mark.

“Achieving an excellent social responsibility rating is a high bar,” said Carol Gstalder, Senior VP of The Harris Poll. “It wasn’t that many years ago when we didn’t see any companies attain this level of recognition for their efforts. So, while this progress is a testament to how much more active some companies are in their CSR endeavors, it also demonstrates how much more work is needed.”

Following its emissions scandal, Volkswagen Group took a dive in the polls, but has started to show signs of recovery, climbing 7.9 points to a score of 57.7. Hobby Lobby (+7.3) — which recently came under fire for its attack on the contraceptive mandate — as well as Capital One Financial Corporation (+7.1), Burger King (+6.7), Toyota Motor Corporation (+6.2), 21st Century Fox (+7.1) and Prudential Financial (+5.3) also made notable social responsibility gains.

Wells Fargo, dealing with the fallout from its fake accounts scandal, experienced the largest drop, falling 19 points to a “critical” score, while Bank of America (-8.4), Samsung (-6.8), Procter & Gamble Co. (-6.1) and Goldman Sachs (-5.8) also showed marked social responsibility declines.

“Consider corporate reputation crises in recent memory — Wells Fargo, Mylan, Samsung, Volkswagen and Takata — and it makes sense that we see employee treatment, ethics, providing affordable products and safety on top of consumers’ minds,” said Wendy Salomon, VP of Reputation Management and Public Affairs at The Harris Poll. “Although the poll was conducted before United Airline’s passenger issue, respectful treatment of customers was already among the top social responsibility matters vital to consumers. Given the magnitude of attention about United’s scandal, how companies show respect to customers is something consumers will continue to watch very closely.”

The study also revealed insight into the importance of winning over the millennial generation.

Personal information security was a trending topic for both millennials and baby boomers, both of whom expressed a marked concern about the increasing amount of personal information companies capture about their customers. Forty-six percent of millennials and thirty-six percent of baby boomers have decided not to do business with or not purchase products from a company because they were concerned about how their personal information was protected.

The Harris Poll study also demonstrated that millennials are more likely to proactively try to influence family and friends’ perceptions about a company because of something they learned about how the company conducts itself. Forty-one percent of millennials said they do this and more than half of millennials said they have participated in a conversation with others about how a company conducts itself.

With millennials boasting tremendous buying power, companies would do well to integrate social responsibility activities into their corporate DNA and take action to better communicate to customers why these programs are important. Those that fail to do so will see themselves fall exponentially behind.

“Acting responsible and creating social value is not a fad or the movement of the moment. It’s a real opportunity to strengthen your business that will matter when you need it most,” added Salomon.

The release of the 2017 Harris Poll results comes on the heels of esno’s World Value Index, which measures and ranks brands’ overall World Value, as perceived by consumers. This year’s Index demonstrated a preference for purpose-oriented brands and those that are effectively communicating about their efforts. Against a backdrop of low trust in business leaders, nonprofits and companies with strong track records of create brand and social value through sustainability came out on top.