Can a company’s corporate responsibility influence customer buying decisions?

1st December 2011 by John Drummond

I am speaking today at a meeting of the Corporate Responsibility Group (CRG) in London on whether consumers care about CR. The CRG is a network of CR directors and managers from the UK’s leading businesses.

I’m going to be saying that the way I look on this depends on your perceptual positioning (an NLP turn of phrase). In other words, who you are and how you are looking at the issue. Let’s imagine three positions.

In the first position I am a head of CR. This is the world of our company’s impact across marketplace, workplace, environment and community. It is the world of backward-looking annual CR reports. It is the world of GRI and earning the trust of external stakeholders.

It is the world where I am interested in exploring the fact that around 30% of consumers say that they would consider rewarding or punishing companies based on their approach to responsible business (always a dubious claim). In this world, I am interested in communications and engagement as key strategies.

In the second position, I am the CEO of a business. This is the world where I have learned from the recession that a primary focus on short-term financial success is a massive risk to medium and long term survival. This is the world where I am exploring what my preferred future operating environment is and what I need to do to bring it to life.
And, because the long-term forces you to consider context, it is also the world of the WEF global risk assessment and the WBSCD Vision 2050.  It is the world of new business models, transformational change to achieve that preferred future. It is the world of Andrew Witty at GSK, Paul Polman at Unilever, Richard Evans at PepsiCo, Jeff Immelt of GE, Sam Laidlaw of Centrica, Peter Simpson of Anglian Water.

In this world, the focus is on the company’s purpose, it is about strategic action, reinventing the product portfolio, companies with meaning, the opportunity to change the world and make money doing it. In this world, those strategic actions add up to the brand. The brand is the stuff of strategy not an invention of marketing communications.
But, like CR, it is of only limited interest to consumers. But consumers do come into the thinking because, without exception, the only way of achieving this world is through customer action.

In the third position, I am the customer. Here my primary interests are the value of your product or service in my life. I am also interested in how you can help me act on the causes I care about. I am inclined to eat well, move more, recycle more, save energy, save money for the future. This is the world of products, services and behaviours.

And, in my view, it is the most powerful of the three positions. How does this answer the question about whether customers care about a company’s CSR credentials? In this way…..that the question begins with the wrong perceptual positioning. If we want to influence the customer, we don’t start where we are and invite them to join us. We start where they are and we join them.

 John

November 2011 

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