Consumers Seek Authenticity In Cause-Related Marketing

Buying from companies who are good corporate citizens matters more than ever to American consumers, according to a new survey, with 83% of Americans saying companies have a responsibility to help support causes. But for the first time since Cone Inc., the Boston-based brand strategy company, began polling on the issue in 1993, "we're starting to see some numbers go down," says Carol Cone, chairman and founder.

For example, while more than two-thirds of Americans say they consider a company's business practices when deciding what to buy, only 30% have made recommendations to friends and family members--down sharply from 43% in Cone's 2004 survey.

"We see that as an effect of the 'ribbonization' of America," Cone says. "Consumers are saying it's not enough for a company to put a ribbon on a product, linking it to some cause. It has to make sense for the company, it has to be authentic and it has to be breakthrough." Underwhelmed consumers, she says, are less likely to make word-of-mouth recommendations.



The 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Survey provided plenty of evidence that consumer expectations about corporate citizenship are at an all-time high. "It isn't enough to provide a good product or service at a fair price," she says.

For example, 92% acknowledge they have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause they care about, and 85% say they'd switch to another company if they learned it wasn't a good guy, after all.

Among marketers, she says, "there's a growing level of awareness that cause-related marketing isn't something that's nice to do, it's something they have to do," Cone says. "It's a social contract. And good is the new black."

Another big change, Cone says, is that consumers are increasingly turning that expectation on their employers. About 72% think their employers should do more to support a cause or social issue compared to 52% in 2004.

"Employers are only now learning about this powerful strategy on employee morale," she says, "and recognizing the importance of employees as 'brand ambassadors.' It's very early in the game."

The study also found that consumer thinking about causes continues to evolve beyond where they do their shopping and which brands to buy. About 86% say they think about a company's commitment to social issues when deciding which companies they want to see doing business in their communities, up from 58% in 2001; 77% consider it when thinking about where to work, up from 48% in 2001, and 66% weigh causes when investing in stocks and mutual funds, up from 40% in 2001.

But all causes aren't equal, and simply forking some money over to the Salvation Army or the local Little League is passé: Nine in 10 Americans say companies should support causes that are consistent with their business practices. And 87% want companies to support issues where it can have the most impact.

The survey found that health is still the No. 1 issue Americans want companies to address, at 80%, while education, environment, and economic development tie for second place at 77%.

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