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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is on the march, globally speaking. Consumers have embraced the precepts of CSR not only as universal expectations for corporations, but even as an animating principle in their own lives. Consumers are more cognizant than ever of the vast power they hold in the marketplace -- the power to influence corporate behavior through what they buy, where they work and the causes they support.
A recent CSR study conducted by Cone Communications and Ebquity illustrates the shifting nature of global standards. The following is a glimpse at how four major economic powerhouses—the U.S., China, Brazil and the U.K. —are adapting to the new reality of CSR.
CSR in the U.S.
Americans have long been noted for their expectation that companies do more than simply make a profit. The culture of CSR is deeply ingrained in American society. Companies that embrace these ideals are duly rewarded for doing so, as consumers look upon them more favorably. Ninety-one percent of Americans report that they look more favorably upon firms that support environmental of social issues.
Though formerly appearing more cynical of CSR aims, more Americans now believe companies are making a significant impact in social or environmental areas. This increase may be reflective of a more nuanced understanding of CSR issues on behalf of the American public. Americans report a firm grasp of concepts such as "greenhouse gases" and "climate change."
However, Americans still do not display the inclination to purchase a product of inferior quality or take a pay cut to work with a company promoting social values.
What this means for companies
American firms should bear CSR in mind where branding is concerned. Americans are apt to place the onus on corporations to take the lead in matters of social responsibility, rather than making changes in their own lives. By bearing this in mind, companies can identify opportunities that promote social value and profitability.
CSR in China
The Chinese are known for displaying considerable enthusiasm for CSR. This helps explain the widespread Chinese expectation that companies address social and environmental issues while producing results for shareholders.
The Chinese are also more optimistic than average. Sixty-one percent report believing companies are striving for maximum social responsibility, an increase of 13 points over the global average.
While expectations for Chinese companies are elevated, Chinese consumers do not expect them to shoulder the entire burden. Consumers report a willingness to make changes in their own lives, including lifestyle sacrifices, for the furthering of CSR aims. Chinese consumers are also willing to consider CSR factors when making daily decisions, and show wider participation in CSR efforts across the board, from volunteering to purchasing choices. Chinese consumers are also highly engaged with CSR, with 49 percent showing a willingness to speak to companies directly or tell others about a company's CSR efforts. That contrasts with a global average of 34 percent.
China also leads the way among all countries in using social media to discuss CSR efforts, with 89 percent reporting doing so, as opposed to a 61 percent global average.
Chinese consumers are deeply engaged with CSR efforts. They expect companies to promote social values while displaying a willingness to do the same. Yet it's vitally important to companies to remember the value of social media in this regard, as Chinese consumers view these platforms as essential for CSR communication.
CSR in Brazil
Much like the Chinese, Brazilians are dedicated to the promotion of CSR values. Brazilians display near unanimity on the issue of whether companies should go beyond mere profit seeking, with 96 percent expecting firms to support social or environmental concerns. That compares to a global average of 91 percent.
Brazil also led all nations surveyed in reporting that they would only pay attention to CSR efforts if they exceed what other countries are doing. Some 82 percent of Brazilians reported this, as opposed to a 64 percent global average. This means Brazilians have some of the most exacting standards in the world.
Brazilians are also notable for their willingness to let CSR guide their decisions about which products to recommend (94 percent for Brazilians, compared to 82 percent, globally) and where to work (93 percent for Brazilians compared to 79 percent, globally). Brazilians are also more likely to switch brands in order to support a cause, and vastly more likely to believe their purchases can have a significant impact (55 percent for Brazilians, compared to 29 percent, globally).
Despite this appetite for CSR, some Brazilians remain confused about CSR terminology and communication. While the percentage has declined (from 81 percent in 2011 to 77 percent today), these numbers still rank first among all nations surveyed. Seven in ten Brazilians say they will ignore information that is not accessible.
Brazilians are among the world's most passionate supporters of CSR aims. This enthusiasm may make it difficult for a company to stand out, however. Firms should also bear in mind the need for clarity in terminology and presentation.
CSR in the U.K.
Residents of the United Kingdom are hard to win over. They rank among the most cynical and least active in regards to CSR goals. This means that the benefit of CSR may be found more in brand development rather than in sales.
Many U.K. residents view the CSR efforts of companies with skepticism, as 57 percent report not believing companies are being as responsible as possible, until they hear about specific efforts being made. This is five points higher than the global average. It may explain why U.K residents are generally more apathetic with regard to CSR, as more of them report being less likely to partner with companies on CSR efforts should the chance arise.
Residents of the U.K. report being the most likely to tune out CSR messages unless something goes wrong. They also report being more confused by CSR messages than the global average (71 percent to 65 percent). This is despite having a better than average grasp of CSR terms.
There is one exception: 70 percent of U.K. residents report making a donation in the last year to a charity supported by a company. That compares favorably to the global average of 61 percent.
This higher rate of donations may be explained by the fact that U.K. residents are less likely to recognize an impact from their own purchases.
Skeptical audiences demand a high burden of proof from companies. To meet this burden, firms must show precisely how their CSR efforts promote social values independently of consumer support, and how consumer purchases and actions can have real societal impact.
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