January 13, 2011
by Greg Prang
Efforts undertaken by corporations today to communicate and market various corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability actions remain strongif not strongerthen ever before. Consumers haven't been immune to the visible environmental effects of the BP oil spill, nor to the rising incidence of messaging and products promoting sustainability. In fact, in 2009, as part of the Hartman Groups 20-year study of consumer perceptions of sustainability, we saw consumers voicing a sense of their own responsibility as potential agents of sustainability-related change at household, community and global levels. And yet today, Hartmans most recent sustainability study found within the ongoing (and still rising) green tide, a consistent gap has emerged where consumers view "green" with different perceptions from the companies from whom they buy goods and services.
This gap is highly ironic, when, considering the scope of CSR efforts and money invested, it's increasingly clear that a vast majority of corporate sustainability activities undertaken by today's companies go relatively unnoticed by consumers. Consumers report their attention is grabbed by how a company treats its employees, distributes wealth within communities, treats animals and, finally, cares for the environment. Objectively and pragmatically, consumers will also say they seek personal benefit and high quality from sustainable products and services. And yet, look around at how CSR and corporate sustainability actions are reported on today: Typically, a great emphasis is placed on actions undertaken in the environment or in energy, with less emphasis placed on relating social actions, community efforts, employee programs or personal benefits provided to consumers.
Mind the Sustainability Gap
Even if consumers consider their own roots in sustainability, which include deep connections to environmental movements popularized in the 1970s (and dating back to the 19th century), sustainability is not top of mind today. For most Americans, the overarching concept of sustainability is too broad to be relevant on a daily basis. Consumers are often overwhelmed with the complexity of expert opinions and what they frequently perceive as contradictory evidence and claims. In fact, most consumers have difficulty identifying significant details of brands or companies linking to sustainability practices.
The current study, Marketing Sustainability Bridging the Gap Between Consumers and Companies, finds sustainability awareness levels have increased by 28 percent since 2007, to about seven out of 10 people (69 percent). Still, only one in five consumers (21 percent) can identify a sustainable product and even fewer can determine a sustainable company (12 percent). In other words, the gap between consumer awareness of the term sustainability, and identification of sustainable products, brands and companies, is the same gap that described at the beginning of this discussion: Consumers today have little to no ability to point to significant details regarding brands or companies that might have a sustainability halo.
Consumers point to companies like REI and Whole Foods Market as beacons of sustainability, not because they know or love these brands, but because these brands have pervaded elements of the consumer idea sphere as being good brands. Except for the most Core consumers, the term sustainability continues to be outside of most consumers everyday vocabulary, and does not include a holistic understanding of the traditional economic, social and environmental zones of salience. Rather than integrate all three zones of salience, most everyday consumers conflate sustainability with the environmental zonewith all things green. This doesnt mean social and economic zones are unimportant; rather, they are uncoupled from most consumers understanding of sustainability. In fact, and germane to some of the most important insights arising from the 2010 study, its within the social zone of sustainability that consumers attribute the greatest importance overall. Consequently, to leverage sustainability efforts and CSR activities, companies today must communicate their positive impact in what consumers perceive to be their real social world. In terms of CSR efforts, going green, adding alternative energy sources, reducing carbon footprint and purchasing carbon offsets is interesting to consumers, if understood or perceived as relevant. When we speak of the real social world and how connections are made in the minds of consumers between sustainability and good companies, those companies and brands perceived by consumers as benevolente.g., companies that empower workers, provide great benefits, a healthy working environment, and show an overall concern for community and animal welfareare viewed as sustainable. We often see today that this halo of sustainability in turn tends to create the much sought-after effects of customer loyalty and even enthusiastic brand evangelists. In essence, consumers prefer to do business with companies that share their values of sustainability.
Conclusion: Crossing the Gap
Results from the 2010 sustainability study show that in todays uncertain economic climate, consumers are attributing sustainability to brands and companies they perceive as good neighbours who follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you. At the personal and household level, they are looking for brands and companies they can depend on to keep their neighbourhoods clean and healthy (environmental), participate in local activities and the social well-being of their community (social) and contribute to the economic viability of the community (economic). Brands and companies that are best able to tap into this consumer desire for reciprocity (e.g., the golden rule) are more readily equated in the minds of consumers as sustainable. While not commonly understood or discussed in CSR circles today, providing and communicating a workplace composed of happy, satisfied employees or stating a corporate mission concerned for animal welfare is whats relevant to todays consumers and are actions that have an excellent chance at bridging the sustainability gap.
Greg Prang, Ph.D., senior ethnographic analyst, The Hartman Group (THG), led the most recent THG work in sustainability: Marketing Sustainability: Bridging the Gap between Consumers and Companies (2010) and The Sustainability Marketing Playbook (2010). He has a rich experience concerning the consumption of leisure, and commodity chain analysis, and the interface of consumer choices and sustainability.
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