Do Consumers Really Care About Corporate Social Responsibility?

As marketers, we know it’s hard to change a narrative once it takes hold.

It’s no different with the rapidly developing modern marketing obsession with corporate social responsibility, or CSR. In addition to being a card-carrying member of the TUTLA (Totally Useless Three Letter Acronym) club, CSR has become le mot du jour for many businesspeople and marketing experts across the world.

It’s happening in the finance sector, where robo-advisor companies like WealthSimple allow customers to create socially responsible and sustainable portfolios, and trillion-dollar fund managers like the UK’s Legal and General are actively considering pulling investment from companies that fail to act on climate change.

It’s happening in the food and beverage industry, where restaurants in California have begun drawing attention to how they’re reducing water waste by changing dishwashing techniques and pre-washing dishes with compressed air.

And it’s happening all over retail, where brands like Patagonia, Burt’s Bees and Starbucks have built their reputations around responsible and sustainable business practices.

But the question here is — do consumers really care?

CSR Fatigue is Real

This is an open question, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s already been decisively answered. Cheerleaders for CSR are everywhere on the internet. Bringing corporate social responsibility into the public consciousness is actually one of the few good things that millennials have been credited with doing.

And the numbers appear to be overwhelming. According to a 2017 Horizon Media survey, 81% of millennials expect companies to publicly pledge to be good corporate citizens. Reason Digital’s CSR survey was even more bullish: it found that 96% of those surveyed agreed good social and environmental policies were important.

Open and shut case, right? Not quite.

The average consumer still isn’t putting her money where her mouth is. That same Reason Digital survey found that although respondents highly valued CSR, their behaviors did not match up with their stated viewpoints. Related surveys have found that only 5% of consumers actually consider a company’s ethics above all else when shopping around to buy something.

Exploring the Attitude-Behavior Gap

It’s a well-documented fact in consumer polling that attitudes don’t always match up with behaviors. Social desirability bias can wreak havoc with sampling, and cause “socially desirable” (or in this case, progressive) answers to be over-represented in poll responses.

There are tons of reasons for people to espouse pro-CSR beliefs in public, but not practice them in their private lives. For many people, price and convenience rightly trump all other considerations. For these folks, social responsibility might be important, but it’s not the most important. Not by a long shot.

Corporate social responsibility also can’t be taken at face value, and consumers are starting to realize this. For every noble charitable effort by a well-meaning company, there’s a behemoth corporation like the NFL trying to whitewash its image by setting up a sham foundation or charity drive. Corporate social responsibility is now the it-girl of the marketing world — which is leading to a lot of unsavory imitators in the space.

It’s also getting harder to remember who is even a good corporate citizen. The internet created the conditions for monitoring CSR by letting journalists cover “corporate crises” and ethical failures more easily, but the Twitter outrage machine might be starting to shoot itself in the foot here.

If everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis — and companies that exhibit truly bad behavior end up getting off scot-free once the public moves on to the next crisis. Amazon and Nestle both have 0/20 ratings from corporate ethics watchdog Ethical Consumer. How are those companies doing again?

What’s the Marketing Takeaway? Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

This post shouldn’t be read as anti-CSR, but as a friendly warning. Social responsibility is a fantastic thing, and hopefully in the future more and more consumers come around to spending their paycheques more carefully and ethically. Money really does talk, and rewarding CSR is a great way to make a difference in a very loud, complicated world.

However, marketers have to be realistic.  There are few concrete numbers that reliably demonstrate that CSR marketing strategies even work, so ignore classic marketing tactics like price and convenience at your own peril.

Marketers have to know their consumers, and the only way to know someone is to find out how they really feel — not how you wish they felt.

Sean Ridder