In a recent open-letter to stakeholders, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson set out his vision for the brand, and commitment to transforming its values as well as its services.
Amidst promises to develop more eco-friendly stores and become ‘resource-positive’ by 2030, Johnson emphasised that “the journey we undertake is not only the right one for Starbucks responsibility as a corporate citizen of the world, but is also fundamental to our brand relevance and, therefore, our overall business results.”
Brands have never been more conscious of their impact on the world—there is a growing sense that brands need to have a ‘social brand purpose’—demonstrating that their products and services not only benefit customers, but also wider society. Starbucks is one of many making commitments to change, with the likes of Microsoft, Suntory and Mattel getting involved. While it is undoubtedly positive that brands are making positive changes, do these initiatives affect consumer choice?
In recent years, numerous studies have claimed to demonstrate how consumers take into account brands’ societal contributions when making purchases. This includes WE Communication’s report that claims that 74% of consumers say it is important for brands to take public stands on social or political issues, whilst Edelman claims that 64% of consumers will buy or boycott brands based on their stances.
However, these studies are limited. They report claimed behaviour from surveys, yet we know there is often a gap between what someone says in a survey and what they actually do. At 2CV, we tested consumers in Singapore, the US and UK using more sophisticated methods to see if social brand purpose really is a significant factor in brand choice.
Uncovering social brand purpose
In contrast to the abovementioned studies, we decided against asking people whether social brand purpose affected them—this approach leads to social desirability bias. Instead, we tested respondents using an experimental approach across five different fictitious products—a chocolate bar, café, smartphone, laundry detergent and beauty range, each with their own logo and category-relevant social brand purpose messages.
The brand purpose messages demonstrated how each brand treated people ethically, treated the environment ethically, or supported positive society causes. This was tested against ‘standard’ sales pitches without social brand purpose messaging, and respondents were then asked how likely they would be to purchase the product.
If social brand purpose genuinely affects brand choice, we would see higher purchase intent results among respondents who saw a social brand purpose message. However, this was not the case—in almost all cases, the social brand purpose messaging did not affect purchase intent.
For example, for the coffee shop brand tested, the purchase intent for the standard messaging was slightly higher (28%) in comparison to the brand purpose claims—treats people well (26%), treats environment well (25%) and supports positive society causes (25%). For the smartphone brand, there was little increase in purchase intent either—treats people well (18%), treats environment well (19%) and supports positive society causes (17%) were no higher (statistically-speaking) than the standard message (16%). This was the same case for the chocolate bar and beauty brand, with little or no difference in comparison.
The exception was for the laundry detergent—the ‘treats environment well’ message (which featured a ‘less polluting’ claim) resulted in significantly higher purchase intent (30%), compared to the standard message (16%).
These results were highly consistent across the three markets covered (Singapore, US, UK) and differences around age groups and genders were minor. These results tell us that there is little evidence that an individual market or demographic is more swayed by social brand purpose.
Brands are right to be concerned about their impact on the planet and society. However, our research suggests that brands should not fall for the hype and think that simply adopting a social purpose will drive consumers to choose your brand. While there may be exceptions, we expect social brand purpose to play a very limited role in brand choice in most categories.
This does not mean that brands shouldn’t focus on being socially or environmentally conscious. Looking after your workers, working to become more sustainable, and contributing to important societal issues are still important—but brands should be aware that this is likely to be an ineffective in driving sales.
Successful brands understand what their customers want. Even in an age of social purpose for brands, marketers should remember that nothing is as important to consumers as quality, convenience and price. Unfortunately, we are not as socially conscious as we claim to be (and many marketers believe) when choosing the brands we buy.
James Redden is APAC managing director at 2CV.