Consumers Expect Better From Marketers

It wasn’t long ago that “cause-related marketing” was a novelty. Then it turned into a necessity — something companies had to do if they wished to be welcome in polite society. Now, as the new edition of Edelman’s annual Goodpurpose study makes clear, consumer expectations have evolved in such a way that companies must make sure their involvement with causes amounts to much more than a marketing ploy.

These days, found Edelman, consumers set the bar high for companies when it comes to their involvement in social issues. Among respondents to polling in the U.S. (fielded in August), 87 percent agreed that “business needs to place at least equal weight on society’s interests” as it does on its own interests. And this can’t be just a matter of handing one of those oversized checks to some charity: 62 percent said it’s “no longer enough for corporations to give money; they must integrate good causes into their everyday business.” Of course, this doesn’t mean money is a trivial aspect of corporate commitment to good purposes, as 63 percent of respondents also said they “expect brands to donate a portion of their profits to support a good cause.”

According to Mitch Markson, chief creative officer at Edelman and founder of its Goodpurpose study, “It’s a matter of brands ingraining the cause into their DNA.” And that, in turn, means the cause should have some plausible connection to the brand’s own business. “I think it speaks to the need for a company to ask what its business purpose is and to find its cause through that purpose. If you go back to what is the purpose of the brand or company, I think there’s a natural pathway to finding a cause,” he says.

Mitch Baranowski, principal and chief creative officer at BBMG (a firm whose specialties include analyzing consumer interest in corporate behavior vis-à-vis environmental and other issues), concurs on the importance of choosing a cause that truly fits the company’s core identity. Speaking of “conscious consumers” who are alert to matters like corporate social responsibility, he says, “They see companies and causes in a holistic sense. While they often see the benefit of more traditional cause-related marketing, they are candidly more interested in seeing companies be the cause — for example, Tom’s Shoes and Newman’s Own — rather than engage in ‘stick-on’ cause-related marketing that risks being inauthentic if done poorly.” Drawing the implication of this for companies, he says, “If you are to engage in cause marketing, do so in a way that is authentic to your brand. The cause should be relevant to your consumer set and align with who you are and what you do. It shouldn’t be an order dictated by the C-suite for no apparent reason.”

If consumers expect a lot from business in committing to good causes, it’s because they think it’s capable of a lot — and perhaps all the more so in an era of skepticism about what government can and should do. Eighty percent of Edelman’s respondents agreed that “corporations are in a uniquely powerful position to make a positive impact on good causes.”

Happily for marketers, it’s not purely a matter of imposing obligations on companies. Consumers will also reward a company that makes engagement with good causes an integral part of the way it does business: 72 percent in the Edelman polling said they’re “more likely to purchase a product from a company that supports good causes and has fair prices than a company that simply offers deep discounts.” And while a willingness to pay a premium for cause-supporting products is less than universal, 34 percent said that, in the past six months, they’ve “purchased a brand that supports a good cause even if it was not the cheapest.” That dovetails with the findings of recent polling by BBMG in which 81 percent of respondents said they bought more “socially and environmentally friendly products and services” in the past year than they’d done in the preceding year.

Consumers will also enlist as unpaid spokespeople for brands they believe have a purpose beyond just making profits. Sixty-six percent of Edelman’s respondents subscribed to the statement, “I would help a brand promote their products or services if there is a good cause behind them.” Surprisingly, given the foibles of human nature, the impulse to reward good corporate deeds seems more common than the inclination to punish bad ones. If a company failed to engage with worthy causes, 34 percent “would criticize it to others” and 36 percent would “refuse to buy its products/services.”

If a company does integrate cause-supporting behavior into its normal operations, rather than making it a conspicuous add-on, does this raise a danger that consumers won’t notice its good deeds and give credit for them? Not if the company makes a point of involving consumers in the cause-supporting action — as, for instance, Pepsi (an Edelman client) has done with its Pepsi Refresh project, which invites consumer input in choosing causes to be funded. In the social networking era, people expect and seek such participation, especially since they feel it will yield the most benefit for good causes. Edelman found 74 percent of respondents agreeing that “brands and consumers could do more to support good causes by working together.”

Says Markson: “To me, it’s about whether the consumer is partnering with and participating with companies to do something good. If you’re involving consumers in your community of cause, we’ll all get the credit.”

This also empowers consumers to affect the corporate world in a way they normally cannot. Says Markson of such corporate-consumer cooperation on behalf of causes: “It allows consumers to put their mark on it. They can’t be involved in setting price or developing product, but they can be involved in defining a company’s engagement with a cause.”

The long economic downturn has lent a greater urgency to this. Markson notes that the overseas portion of the Goodpurpose polling found people in emerging markets “have higher expectations of companies on social issues than we do in the West, because they’re closer to social need.” The bad economy here may be creating a kind of global convergence in that regard as economic hardship bites harder for many in the developed countries. This also blurs the divide between self-interest and social interest. Says Markson: “Thinking about ‘me’ may also be thinking about a social issue, because it might affect ‘me.'”

When Edelman asked respondents in the U.S. to identify the causes they’d like to see companies engage in, “alleviating hunger and homelessness” topped the list, cited by 89 percent. “Maybe we’re getting closer to the need here, too,” Markson says.