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Branding and Social Responsibility

Customers Struggle To Identify Responsible Brands

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Customers Struggle To Identify Responsible Brands

The ethical consumer may be a well identified buyer in the marketing press, but customers themselves seem somewhat confused by what counts as a responsible brand.

Recent research yields a fascinating picture. On the one hand, 60% of Americans say they believe it’s important to buy from responsible brands. So clearly there is inclination. On the other, many can’t actually name a responsible company and/or they come up with choices that marketers wouldn’t necessarily see in that light. So there is also confusion and perhaps a lack of awareness.

For example, look at the brands that made the list of most responsible. Perhaps not surprisingly Toms had high top of mind, followed by Red Cross and Starbucks. No real surprises so far, but then brands such as Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Target. While all these big brands will no doubt be thrilled that they are perceived this way, and I am in no way questioning their commitment to doing good, none of them would strike me as being as determinedly built on a responsibility platform. That in turn raises the question as to what influences people to see a brand as particularly responsible. What happened to Patagonia, for example, Ben & Jerrys, Dove, or Body Shop …?

So, is it what brands do that counts, or who consumers know? It’s reasonable to speculate that most people would like to think of themselves as being responsible, so of course they want to say they support brands that are also seen by those around them as responsible. They’re just having a hard job, it seems, identifying who those brands are. At least 10% of people couldn’t name one responsible brand, and plenty more people gave answers that referenced sectors rather than specific brands.

What was interesting too was the effect that responsible consumerism was having on the charity sector, with more than 20% saying that they preferred “giving back” by buying what they deemed to be socially responsible products and about half saying that doing so was a more effective way to support positive change.

Is part of the problem that consumers are not clear in their own minds about what to deem as a responsible brand? Responsibility sounds like something they would want to support but they have no established and agreed criteria for what to consider responsible and, therefore, what to consider as irresponsible.

The clear take-aways for me are that “responsible” is subjective for many consumers, that the charity sector is increasingly failing to deliver a value proposition that gives it moral and financial priority over the claims of others, and that “responsible” in itself may be more closely associated with likeability than many of us might have expected. In other words, perhaps consumers gift the brands they like with attributes that they also wish to be associated with.

That in turn has important strategic implications. Perhaps there are fewer real opportunities to differentiate by focusing on the moral high ground than some of us would have thought.

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