Global consumers feel a personal accountability to address social and environmental issues and look to companies as partners in progress, according to findings from the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study, released last week. Near universal in their demands for companies to act responsibly, nine-in-10 consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues. Global consumers echo that high standard in their own lives and shopping behavior. Eighty-four percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible, though eight-in-10 (81%) cite availability of these products as the largest barrier to not purchasing more.

The study, a follow-up to the 2011 and 2013 global studies on consumer attitudes, perceptions and behaviors around corporate social responsibility (CSR), was conducted by Cone Communications and Ebiquity. The research reflects the sentiments of nearly 10,000 citizens in nine of the largest countries in the world by GDP, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, India and Japan.

“The research has revealed an increasingly sophisticated consumer,” says Jennifer Ciuffo Clark, research director, Ebiquity. “Global consumers have high demands for companies to address social and environmental issues, but they now also understand they have an obligation to make change, as well. It’s critical for companies to understand the nuanced drivers, barriers and opportunities that resonate among discerning global audiences.”

Consumer CSR Understanding and Empowerment Grows

As CSR becomes firmly grounded in many global citizens’ daily routines and considerations, consumers have a better understanding and are more optimistic overall about their own ability to make a positive impact. In fact, nearly three-quarters (72%) believe their purchases make a moderate-to-significant positive impact on social or environmental issues. This positive outlook may stem from a growing command of CSR terms and language; consumer confusion of company CSR messages has dropped from 71 percent in 2011 to 65 percent in 2015.

As personal accountability and sophistication grows, consumers are also considering their own role in addressing social and environmental issues. Global consumers state they are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. Four-in-five are willing to consume or purchase fewer products to preserve natural resources (81%) or buy a product from an unknown brand if it has strong CSR commitments (80%). Consumers are even willing to forgo elements like ownership or quality to push progress forward:

  • 62% of consumers would work for a socially or environmentally responsible company, even if the salary was less than other companies
  • 61% would be willing to borrow or share products rather than buy new ones
  • 57% would purchase a product of lesser quality or efficacy if it was more socially or environmentally responsible

“Companies shouldn’t take consumers’ willingness to make sacrifices as a signal to cut corners,” says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president, Cone Communications. “Rather, this is an opportunity to engage consumers more fully in new CSR solutions, collaborating to push the boundaries of responsible consumption and lifestyle.”

Consumers Seek More Options to Engage in CSR Efforts

The leading ways consumers want to get engaged with companies’ CSR efforts are actions tied directly to their wallets, with nine-in-10 just as likely to purchase (89%) as to boycott (90%) based on companies’ responsible practices. However, consumers view their role in creating social and environmental change as extending well beyond the cash register. If given the opportunity:

  • 80% would tell friends and family about a company’s CSR efforts
  • 76% would donate to a charity supported by a company they trust
  • 72% would volunteer for a cause supported by a company they trust
  • 72% would voice their opinions directly to a company about CSR efforts

Despite their good intentions, the leading ways consumers actually engage with companies remain transactional, as shopping (63%), donating (61%) and boycotting a product (53%) are the top reported behaviors taken over the last 12 months.

“Companies are still relying on traditional forms of consumer engagement primarily tied to the product shelf, yet consumers are looking for more diverse ways to get involved with CSR efforts,” says DaSilva. “Companies can serve as a catalyst for sparking donations, volunteerism and advocacy by giving consumers a spectrum of ways to get involved.”

Bottom-Line Benefits from CSR Engagement

CSR remains a boon to brand reputation and affinity. In line with 2013 results, when companies support social or environmental issues, consumer affinity overwhelmingly upsurges:

  • 93% of global citizens will have a more positive image of that company
  • 90% will be more likely to trust that company
  • 88% will be more loyal (i.e., continue buying products or services)
  • Eight-in-10 or more consider CSR when deciding what to buy or where to shop (84%), which products and services to recommend to others (82%), which companies they want to see doing business in their communities (84%) and where to work (79%)

CSR is also a powerful differentiator at the register, as 90 percent of global consumers would switch brands to one that is associated with a good cause, given similar price or quality. This inclination to shop with an eye toward greater good has remained strong since 2011.

Breaking Through to the Empowered Consumer

Although global consumers factor social and environmental considerations into many daily decisions, breaking through is proving to be harder than ever. Yet, the consequences of not reaching consumers are high. Two-thirds (64%) of consumers say they only pay attention to company CSR efforts if an organization is going above and beyond what other companies are doing. Meanwhile, half (52%) will assume a company is not acting responsibly until they hear information otherwise.

The onus is on companies to ensure their CSR efforts and results are being delivered and heard in a way consumers understand.

  • 88% expect companies to report on the progress of CSR efforts
  • 86% believe if companies make CSR commitments, they must be held accountable for producing and communicating results
  • 89% believe companies need to do a better job showing how social and environmental commitments are personally relevant
  • 64% will ignore a company’s CSR messages altogether if they use terms they don’t understand

Even as consumers expect companies to communicate results, companies should not rely solely on CSR reports to convey information, as only a quarter of global citizens have read a CSR report in the past 12 months. Companies should look to leverage and communicate data in new ways to stay relevant. Consumers say both stories and data related to impact are equally important (59%). They prefer to see CSR data in the form of:

  • Brief written summaries: 43%
  • Interactive websites: 34%
  • Videos: 31%
  • Infographics: 25%

The 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study also reveals an increasing democratization of preferred communications channels. Once relegated to one or two traditional sources, global consumers are now looking to a number of channels to get CSR information, from media and advertising to company websites and social media. Product packaging (19%), media (15%) and advertising (14%) remain the most effective ways to reach consumers, but social media and mobile channels combined continue to gain traction, nearly doubling from 10 percent in 2011 to 18 percent in 2015.

  • On the product or its package/label: 19% (vs. 22% in 2011)
  • Media (e.g., stories or interviews in newspapers): 15% (vs. 21% in 2011)
  • Advertising (e.g., print, broadcast, online): 14% (vs. 16% in 2011)
  • Social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter): 13% (vs. 7% in 2011)
  • Mobile: 5% (vs. 3% in 2011)

“The consumer mindset of ‘guilty until proven responsible’ puts new pressure on companies to ensure their CSR messages are breaking through,” says DaSilva. “As the communications landscape continues to become more diverse, companies must take an integrated approach to conveying CSR efforts. They need to strike a balance of hyper-targeting CSR content to consumers in ways that are personally relevant, while creating cohesive, always-on communications to break apart from the pack.”

Social Media Leads CSR Conversation

Consistent with 2013 results, consumers continue to see social media as an important way to learn, voice their opinions and speak directly to companies around CSR issues, especially in developing countries. Three-in-five (61%) global consumers use social media to address or engage with companies around CSR issues, whereas usage skyrockets in China (89%), India (88%) and Brazil (84%). Consumers are primarily using social media to share positive information or learn more about issues:

  • 34% of consumers use social media to share positive information about companies and issues
  • 30% use social media to learn more about companies or issues
  • 25% use social media to share negative information

Global Nuances

Although there is strong support for CSR initiatives from all countries surveyed, the emerging markets of India, China and Brazil again remain the most enthusiastic and unwavering in their support:

  • Emerging markets are more likely to feel the impact of company efforts
    • Consumers in India (48%), China (36%) and Brazil (36%) are more likely to believe companies have made a significant impact on social and environmental issues (vs. 27% global average)
  • Citizens in emerging markets are more likely to seek out products and switch brands
    • Consumers in India (95%), China (94%) and Brazil (93%) say they seek out responsible products wherever possible (vs. 84% global average) and are above-average in their desire to switch brands to one that supports a cause (China 97%, Brazil 96%, India 95%)
  • Consumers in emerging markets are more likely to follow through with purchase
    • Consumers in China (84%), India (80%) and Brazil (76%) are more likely to have bought a product with a social or environmental benefit in the past 12 months (vs. 63% global average)

“This study reveals a higher level of understanding, awareness and support of corporate social responsibility efforts from the world’s consumers. Despite distinctiveness on a country-by-country level, global consumers remain steadfast as open-minded partners for collaboration to drive forward social and environmental progress,” says DaSilva. “Now companies must advance CSR beyond a peripheral brand attribute to create an entirely new CSR experience.”

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