02. December 2011
Bradley Googins
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Holiday Shopping and the Brand Promise of CSR

By Bradley Googins and Philip Mirvis
Holiday shopping season is upon us and businesses have spent a fortune to give their brands (and the company behind them) a distinct personality.  Their logic: consumers want "stuff" that makes them feel cool or exciting or maybe secure, sophisticated, or powerful and top brands, gift wrapped or not, promise to deliver what they want.   Business knows that investments to enhance a brand's functions, features, and emotional appeal translate into big profits.  Meanwhile, as this is also the season of thanks and charity, a firm's largesse extends to holiday parties and CSR. 

But suppose that when consumers think about your company, they really do care about your social responsibility?  And that many of them, in many places around the world, care more about CSR than other brand promises? 
Experienced marketers will tell you that such notions are utter nonsense.  Shopping is all about price, performance, and personality.  Sure, they acknowledge, bad companies (if exposed) can turn off consumers but good CSR is, at best, a modest brand "add-on."  
But researchers studying brands and CSR are coming to a different conclusion.  Their findings document the power of CSR's brand promise--in people's psyches and their wallets. 
Resonate Networks:  How People Shop On-Line
Resonate Networks, a three years young Washington, D.C.-based media advertising company, helps companies and politicians to target audiences in the on-line milieu.  The firm's research arm studies how people's "value orientations" translate into their on-line behavior--as voters and as consumers.  Both products and politicians are "brands."  So in their first studies, Resonate explored whether or not personality factors could predict what websites people would visit and what products they would purchase via on-line retail (we'll focus on their consumer studies here).
Many thousands of consumers completed a survey about how important various values were in their purchasing decisions across several product categories (foods, cosmetics, health, services, transport, etc.).  People were asked:  Do you buy products of this type for personal happiness?  To get ahead?  To stay healthy?  To impress friends?  For your family's well-being?  And so on.  The study found that people with different value orientations visit different kinds of websites and purchase different sorts of brands.  This confirmed, in the on-line world, the connection between a person's and a brand's personality and helped companies to target the right audience for their brand messages.
Then, mindful of growing interest in a brand's "social relevance," Resonate added two new batteries of questions.  One set asked about what kinds of "issues" were important to consumers (e.g., education, global warming, childhood obesity, health care, crime, etc.).  Another set asked about corporate social responsibility (whether or not companies harm the environment, care for their workers, support causes, etc.) and how important this is to you.    
What Resonate found is that people's interests in social issues and in social responsibility are also predictive of what websites they visit and what products they buy.  And, in many instances, they were more predictive of people's on-line behavior than traditional "values" measurements.  As an example, family-oriented shoppers look for products that are safe for their children.  But "Green Moms" (74%) are far more likely than moms in general (56%) to buy from companies that "help preserve natural resources for my kids."  And dads are 40% more likely to buy a product based on company involvement with an issue that is important to them.
Does this mean that companies should spend less on making their products appear "sexy" or "luxurious" and more on making sure that they are produced responsibly and don't harm the environment?  Not so fast.
Globescan:  How Countries Judge Companies
Globescan, a research and polling shop based in Canada, has tracked public attitudes about CSR for over a decade and helps companies to sharpen their CSR strategies and investments.  In its Globescan Radar 2011 survey, it asked consumers in over twenty-five countries to say, in their own words, "What are the things that matter most to you in forming either a favorable or unfavorable impression of a company?"  The researchers coded consumer's responses into two categories:  1) comments having to do with brand quality/appeal and 2) those addressing social responsibility (labor practices, ethics, environmental impacts, etc.).
As with Resonate, Globescan found that both brand qualities and CSR are important in how consumers in every nation form impressions of corporate brands.  But there were significant differences in just how important these two factors were across the globe.  In the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia, for example, brand qualities were mentioned most often as "influencers" of how people think about companies.  By contrast, in Germany, Spain, Mexico, and South Africa, CSR factors were more influential.  How about the BRIC countries?  The Chinese and Russians put more weight on brand characteristics while Indians and Brazilians put more on CSR. 
What accounts for these differences?  Nothing so neat and simple as the stage of economic development of a nation (Americans and Germans are both prosperous and one goes more for brands and the other for CSR) or pro- versus anti-business attitudes (Mexicans and Brits are both suspicious of companies while the Chinese and Brazilians love them).  What we see in these data are differences in consumer cultures across countries and in attitudes about the role of business in society. 
To illustrate, the majority of people in brand-minded countries like the U.S., France, and Russia do not really expect business to contribute significantly to the welfare of society (CSR is nice but not necessary to be successful in these markets).  In CSR-minded Brazil, India, and the Philippines, by contrast, large majorities believe strongly that business should promote economic and social development and they judge firms and their brands accordingly.
Now, does this means that companies should spend relatively less on CSR's brand promise in the U.S. and more in Brazil?  With global communications, this can come back to bite you.  But this need not be an "either/or" proposition.  Global brand leaders are putting CSR into their brand promise--for everyone and all over the world!
Putting CSR into the Brand Promise
Decade ago, some pioneering companies showed foresight by making CSR central to their brand's personality: Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co. (apparel), Honest Tea and Grounds for Change coffee (beverages), the Body Shop and Burt's Bees (personal care), and so on.  Now you see this connection in corporate branding in GE's ecomagination, IBM's smarter planet, and Wal-Mart's green living campaigns.  As for product brands, stuff the stockings with Unilever's Dove "inner beauty" shampoos and soaps, sample Nestlé's "shared value" coffees and candies, and, for the kid's holiday, go for toys like a solar-powered robot, a green recycling truck (made from recycled materials), and a Barbie doll (with human proportions) in "earth friendly" packaging. 
As you head out to shop, lace up Timberland boots.  Building its brand on CSR, Timberland has formed “green teams” among its employees and community groups, begun “eco-labeling” on its product sourcing, sewing, and ingredients, launched a “voices of challenge” website to promote multistakeholder dialogue on its efforts, and issued quarterly reports on its social-and-environmental performance. 
When it comes to shopping for yourself and/or the marketer on your list, allow us to plug two books by our colleagues and friends.  If corporate branding is your thing, pick up Taking brand initiative: How companies can align strategy, culture, and identity through corporate brandingby Professors Mary Jo Hatch and Majken Schultz.  These two scholars describe how brand building involves a deep conversation between companies and stakeholders over topical issues, corporate responsibility, and of course brand personality.  Pay attention to how companies “listen” and “respond” in this conversation.  Open and authentic two-way talk gives brands a “trustworthy” personality versus, say, coming across as narcissistic (we know what’s best) or hyper-adaptive (we’ll be whatever you want us to be).  
For practical how-tos and a treasure-trove of examples, try The global brand CEO:  Building the ultimate marketing machine by Marc De Swaan Arons and Frank van den Driest.  It shows CSR specialists how marketers think and how to converse with them, better align the marketing and CSR functions globally, and join branding and CSR into a win-win proposition--for your company and for consumers.
This article was first published at Business Civic Leadership Center / U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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