Thousands of consumers from some of the largest countries around the world are demanding a higher level of responsibility from companies in dealing with societal issues and consumers are using their own spending and loyalty to push these issues, according to a new report.

The movement is revealed in Cone/Echo Global CR Opportunity Study, a 10-country survey released today by Cone Communications and Echo Research. The survey was fielded in countries comprising approximately half the world's population, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, China, India and Japan. The research is supplemented with insights from some of the world's foremost thought leaders on corporate responsibility.

Key global findings indicate:

  • 81 percent of consumers say companies have a responsibility to address key social and environmental issues beyond their local communities;
  • 93 percent of consumers say companies must go beyond legal compliance to operate responsibly; and,
  • 94 percent of consumers say companies must analyze and evolve their business practices to make their impact as positive as possible.

We expected consumer interest in corporate responsibility in these markets, but we got a groundswell, says Mike Lawrence, executive vice president and chief reputation officer of Cone Communications. They are demanding companies look at the societal impact they are having and evolve the way they operate.

There were consistently high expectations for responsible business across the countries surveyed, says Dan Soulas, managing director of Echo Research. However, the findings and expert insights also showed important nuances by country. This clearly points to one conclusion: companies should realize their corporate responsibility strategies need to be customized based on geography. In practice, this means having a broad vision to guide the core principles of engagement, but adapting them at the market level, which requires an in-depth understanding of what will motivate consumers in that locale.

Consumers Will Reward...

Not only do consumers expect businesses to put their resources to work for change, but they want to participate. Ninety-four percent of consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a cause if both brands are similar in price and quality. And, if given the opportunity:

  • 94 percent would buy a product that has an environmental benefit; 76 percent have already purchased an environmental product in the past 12 months.
  • 93 percent would buy a product associated with a cause; 65 percent have already purchased a cause-related product in the past 12 months.

Consumers may be so apt to engage with corporate responsibility and cause-related efforts because they are seeing the impact. Ninety-three percent believe companies have made at least some positive impact on the world. A quarter say the impact has been significant.

Corporate efforts are motivating consumers, too. Nearly three-in-five consumers (59 percent) credit companies with helping to educate them on important issues, and a similar number (56 percent) say they have been inspired to support a new issue.

These high numbers suggest the interpretation of 'cause' is broad and infused in diverse cultures in many ways, says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president, Cone Communications. Although cause marketing in the traditional sense may not be prevalent in some of these countries, consumers may believe they are supporting a cause when buying products sourced locally or from a company with a charitable giving halo.

...But They Will Also Punish

Today's engaged consumers are willing to reward, but just as willing to investigate and punish. More than a third (36 percent) have researched a company's business practices or support of issues, and 32 percent have given their feedback about a company's responsibility efforts directly to the company. Most telling is the consumer willingness to boycott. Ninety-three percent would boycott a company for irresponsibility, and more than half say they already have (56 percent).

Welcome to a new wired world of empowered consumers, says Lawrence. They have access to research and networking tools once reserved for major journalists. In this world, the only way for companies to build reputation and manage risk is through corporate responsibility, engagement and transparency.

Focus on Issues Material to Business

Consumers believe it is important for companies to address a full range of social and environmental issues, including:

  • Economic development -- 96 percent
  • Environment -- 96 percent
  • Water -- 95 percent
  • Human rights -- 94 percent
  • Education -- 90 percent
  • Health and disease -- 90 percent
  • Poverty and hunger -- 87 percent

Yet, if they must choose just one, the clear leader is economic development. Thirty-four percent of the consumers surveyed say this is the most important issue for companies to address. Combined with the environment (21 percent), these issues represent the attention of more than half of the 10,000 respondents. Human rights comes in a more distant third (12 percent).

Supporting all issues is expected of any responsible company today - but it's not necessarily differentiating. Consumers are looking for a company to stand for something, says DaSilva. Companies who frame their efforts within the larger macro issue of economic development will be most compelling and relevant to consumers. Many issues, from poverty, to women's rights, to education, may be approached in a way that stimulates people, communities and economies.

Citizens globally may agree on what companies should address, but they are much more divided when it comes to where. Thirty-six percent of consumers believe companies should prioritize support of issues that affect the quality of life locally in their communities, 33 percent say nationally and 30 percent say globally. There is division as well among countries. Consumers in some of the larger countries want companies to focus locally, including Russia (51 percent), China (49 percent) and the U.S. (47 percent). By comparison, countries on the front line of globalization want companies to take a more global view, including Brazil (46 percent) and India (41 percent).

Maximize Core Business Competencies

Consumers believe it is important for companies to use every approach at their disposal to address critical issues, including:

  • Change the way they operate -- 96 percent
  • Develop a new product or service -- 95 percent
  • Apply unique business assets (such as technology or research) -- 94 percent
  • Raise awareness for an issue and educate consumers and employees -- 93 percent
  • Develop partnerships with or seek feedback from key stakeholders -- 91 percent
  • Donate employee time and expertise -- 86 percent
  • Make donations -- 84 percent

But once again consumers have a clear priority. Thirty-one percent say the single most important way a company should address social and environmental issues is to change the way it operates. The results also reveal some interesting country distinctions. In Japan, a hub of product innovation, developing new products and services to address a social or environmental need (29 percent vs. 16 percent globally) is a clear point of differentiation, whereas in India, raising awareness for issues is key (21 percent vs. 11 percent globally).

Through our research and insights from industry thought leaders, we found consumers want companies to use their business prowess to address the limitations of governments and NGOs, particularly in emerging markets, DaSilva says. The effectiveness of other sectors may be uncertain, but consumers believe companies uniformly have the power, resources and reach to drive change.

Tell it Like it is

Ninety-three percent of consumers want to know what companies are doing to operate more responsibly or to support social/environmental issues, and they also want to be heard (91 percent) themselves. Consumers want a dialogue, but ultimately they still find convenience in traditional one-way communications. The product/package (22 percent), media (21 percent) and advertising (16 percent) are the most effective channels to reach them with messages about corporate responsibility. However, online and new media are impactful, too. When websites (11 percent), social media (7 percent) and mobile devices (3 percent) are combined, new media move into the upper echelon. In fact, 89 percent of consumers expect companies to use both traditional and new media channels to reach them. But no matter the medium, consumers simply want the truth. Eighty-eight percent say it's ok if a company is not perfect, as long as it is honest about its efforts.

The bottom line from our research is this: consumers around the world want companies to be a force for good, both in the way they do business and in devoting their resources to address societal issues, says DaSilva. Just as important, many consumers globally now report they are activists, rewarding companies who act responsibly and punishing companies who do not.