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Social Responsibility Boosts Brand Perception

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Transparency and corporate responsibility are more important than ever to consumers as they struggle with purchasing decisions in a tough economy. So says  a new survey by Landor Associates, Penn Schoen Berland and Burson-Marsteller.

The survey measured consumer perceptions of corporate social responsibility practices and ranked companies that are the most responsible. It found that despite the recession, 75 percent of consumers believe social responsibility is important, and 55 percent of consumers said they would choose a product that supports a particular cause against similar products that don't.

"[Corporate social responsibility] can be the olive branch between struggling industries and consumers in cases where consumers are experiencing the highest expectations and the biggest letdowns," said Scott Osman, global director of Landor's citizenship branding practice, adding that the industries with brands that have performed poorly are the ones in which responsibility is valued most.

One industry where perceptions have dropped significantly is healthcare. The survey attributes this decline to the congressional debate on the issue. "Apparel, an industry that a decade ago was viewed as one of the most irresponsible, is now perceived as better performing than other industries with regard to CSR practices. [Meanwhile] financial services and automotive are presently at the complete opposite end of the spectrum," Osman said.

While 38 percent of respondents plan to spend the same or more on products or services from socially responsible companies, more than half of consumers are unsure about the meaning of CSR. And those who do know what the term means, define it as "giving back to the local community" (20 percent) or as "self-regulation and accountability" (19 percent).

Additionally, the survey found that 70 percent of consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from socially responsible companies. In fact, 28 percent are willing to pay at least $10 more. That means companies have an opportunity to differentiate themselves if they can communicate clearly how they give back to their employees, communities and the environment, per the survey.

When asked to name the most surprising findings, Osman pointed to the fact that nearly 50 percent of 18-24- and 25-34-year-olds are more likely to take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company -- a much higher percentage than any other age group. However, Osman added, "a year where there seems to have been so much responsibility expressed, especially in light of the earthquake in Haiti, only 11 percent of Americans say they’ve heard of corporate CSR communications."