Many reports have been published identifying how social responsibility is at the top of the agenda for consumers. I am not doubting this as most people will want to make a positive contribution through their purchasing, however I would dispute the extent to which social responsibility influences purchasing behaviour.
If you were presented with two businesses, both offering the same product, at the same price and the same quality, you would be likely to opt for the business that is most socially responsible. This is where social responsibility (in terms of business) can differentiate a business giving them a competitive advantage. However, if you were presented with two businesses, one offering high quality products and the other offering poor quality products, social responsibility may have less influence on your purchasing decision. You may want to be socially responsible but you also want to purchase a good quality product.
Businesses need to find a balance between meeting the personal needs of the customer while simultaneously operating in a socially responsible way. Just being socially responsible isn’t always enough.
People want to help others through social responsibility programmes but they also want to make sure they are getting good value for money. Customers have their own needs which need to be addressed first. Some will limit their own enjoyment and satisfaction to help others but many will not. Some simply don’t have the option: for example, if they are on limited income they may need to buy the cheapest out of necessity and social responsibility will hardly even be a consideration.
The Issue with Most Consumer Social Responsibility Research
My main issue is really with the research that is reported around the topic of consumer behaviour and social responsibility. Put yourself in the position of a customer completing a social responsibility questionnaire.
If you were asked, “Would you like to see businesses being more socially responsible?” you are highly likely to answer “yes” – who wouldn’t? Similarly, if you were asked, “Would you prefer to buy from socially responsible businesses?” again you would be likely to answer “yes.”
Now let’s try this again with a different set of questions. If you were asked, “Would you buy from a socially responsible business if it means you will lose out?” you may be less likely to say “yes”. And if you were asked, “Do you currently buy from socially responsible businesses?” you may again be less likely to say “yes.”
I would now like to explore a recent consumer study and pick apart the data to emphasise my point. Cone Communications and Echo Research conducted a comprehensive study into consumer opinions around the topic of social responsibility. The study comprised of surveys from more than 10,000 shoppers across ten different countries. A few of the key outcomes have been highlighted below for discussion.
90% of the consumers are more likely to trust and be loyal to socially responsible businesses
This is a promising statistic but the key term here is ‘more likely’. This only indicates a perceived behavioural change and not an actual or existing change in behaviour.
20% of shoppers actively seek products and services they feel are socially responsible
20%, what happened to the 90% that indicated they were ‘likely’ to do so. Only 20% of consumers are actually putting their beliefs into practice. This is a big difference.
90% of consumers would boycott businesses if they found them engaged in irresponsible business practices
As with the first statistic, this is an assumed behavioural change: consumers ‘would’ boycott. This is slightly stronger than ‘likely to’ but it is still an assumed change.
55% of the consumers have already boycotted irresponsible businesses
What happened to the other 35% of consumers who said they ‘would’ boycott? Converting beliefs into actions is once again lacking.
80% of consumers consider social and environmental issues when deciding where to work, what to buy and where to shop
Another massive statistic about consumers ‘considering’ social responsibility. But what if an irresponsible business offers this person a job with a huge salary or the cheapest prices on the latest products. I’m sure many people will begin to ‘consider’ social responsibility slightly less.
50% of consumers make a purchase with individual motives in mind, e.g. making themselves feel good or helping them to enjoy their own lives more
I feel this final statistic sums up the issue with consumer purchasing and social responsibility perfectly. 50% of people buy for personal gain and 50% of people buy to support others. It is not that people fall into one category or the other but instead everyone has both a desire to address their own personal needs as well as a desire to support the needs of others. Some of us may be more inclined to drift towards one end of the continuum than the other but most people will sit somewhere in the middle.
Therefore, businesses need to understand that being socially responsible is not good enough on its own. Just because you are trying to run your business in a socially responsible way you still need to meet the personal needs of your customers. Just because 90% of people would like to buy from socially responsible businesses only about 20-55% actually do. This is likely due to them not being competitive enough in other areas of their business.
Businesses need to make sure they are offering good products and services, at affordable prices and maintaining quality throughout. Most people will want to make socially responsible purchases but they also want to spend their money on something that will benefit them as well. The fundamental consideration here is to find a balance between providing good quality products and services for your customers to address their personal needs while simultaneously incorporating socially responsible practices into your business model.
Although the type of research typically produced provides a good insight into the beliefs of consumers it does not always summarise their actions. More research in this area needs to be focused on the outcomes of consumer behaviour rather than their intentions. We don’t want to know what consumers ‘might’ do, we want to know what they ‘actually’ do. We need less reporting on ‘I might’, ‘I’m likely’ and ‘I may consider’ and more reporting on ‘I did’, ‘I have’ and ‘I changed’.
Social responsibility can give businesses a competitive advantage but they have to remember that it is only one aspect of business. If you cannot match your competitors in price, quality, choice and service you will often lose out. When a business goes all out to address social responsibility objectives they can run the risk of losing sight of the customer need. A balance has to be made between addressing the personal needs of the consumer while simultaneously addressing relevant social responsibility issues.
I do not want to be negative about social responsibility (after all I have set up this blog to champion it) but rather I want to highlight how consumer needs around social responsibility are not always reported accurately and businesses need to be aware of this in order to be successful. This is closely linked to one of my previous articles: Common Pitfalls of Social Enterprise
I hope this article has provided a slightly different perspective on consumer opinions in relation to social responsibility. I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject so please post a comment if you have something interesting to share.