Changing the World: A Company Mandate

Research Shows How 'Brand Virtue' Influences Consumer Purchases

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Bob Kenney
Bob Kenney
Is "brand virtue" important to consumers? That is, do brands and companies that actively work to make the world a better place enjoy a competitive advantage in marketing to today's consumer? Recent research conducted by Context Marketing illustrates how virtue does indeed sell products, mainly by creating a deeper level of customer engagement.

Context Marketing conducted a series of three consumer surveys over the past nine months, all of which looked at the concept of brand social responsibility as a purchase factor. One did so broadly, while two focused on supermarket food purchases. The results illustrate how consumers are increasingly attentive to socially responsible brand behavior even during the economic downturn. Copies of the three reports are available at the Context Marketing website. Following are highlights from the surveys.

  • Consumers have a concept of "modern virtue" in mind when they scrutinize brands and companies. Most consumers report bringing enhanced expectations to brands as they look for allies in making the world a better place, even if only in small ways. Modern virtue is additive, progressive and action-oriented, combining traditional virtuous qualities (e.g., honesty, dependability, trustworthiness) with contemporary attributes such as environmental sensitivity and product naturalness (in the sense of lacking additives that may adversely affect health and well-being).
  • Most consumers will pay at least a little more for virtuous brands. In one survey, 76% said they will pay more for "responsible brands." Of this, 42% said they would pay up to 10% more, with 34% willing to pay a higher premium. When asked specifically about "ethically produced food," 69% reported they would pay more, with 57% willing to pay up to 10% more.
  • Consumers award virtuous brands and companies with deeper levels of engagement. Approximately eight out of 10 consumers reported giving greater trust and loyalty to brands they see acting in a virtuous manner. They also said they are more likely to take more time to learn about virtuous brands and recommend them to others. In fact, 43% reported they have purchased a brand that is new to them because they saw the company embracing socially responsible practices.
  • Conversely, irresponsible behavior can cause consumers to disengage. Overall, 70% of respondents in our survey reported that whether a brand or company behaves ethically influences their decision to purchase. Nearly half (48%) said they have stopped purchasing a brand when they saw the company acting in a socially irresponsible or unethical way.
  • Virtue is a fluid quality. Eight out of 10 consumers said they do not differentiate between being good and doing good when assessing virtuous behavior in a company or brand. For example, most consumers don't differentiate between a company that practices sustainable agriculture or uses recycled materials in packaging and one that does good for society through cause marketing campaigns.
  • Brand virtue creates a stronger connection with women and young adults. While attention to responsible practices is widespread, women are somewhat more emphatic than men in wanting to purchase responsible brands that make the world a better place and are willing to pay more for ethically produced food. Young adults (ages 20 to 34) also are more responsive to many ethical food claims than older adults. For example, they more readily purchase ethical food because they believe it is better for the environment or represents more humane treatment of farm animals.
  • Virtuous claims can assure consumers about practical concerns as well as altruistic ones. In the research on ethical food, we found that consumers see ethical promises as an integral part of a cluster of brand claims that assure them food is of high quality and thereby safer to eat. There also is evidence that the presence of ethical claims enhances the credibility of other claims a brand makes. For example, 65% of consumers indicated that they are more willing to believe brand claims that a food is of higher quality when they know it is ethically produced.

Bob Kenney is principal of Context Marketing, Tiburon, Calif. The firm helps companies understand and address the societal issues and trends that influence brand preferences and corporate reputation.
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