CSR Spin: Which Companies Sold You a False Sense of Sustainability?
In 2009 greenwashing and localwashing -where companies market themselves as green or local when they're not- was so flagrant it attracted political scrutiny. Marketing that disingenuously uses consumer sympathies makes it difficult for consumers to tell whose CSR is legitimate and accurately "vote" with their dollars. Thankfully Maddock Douglas, an Illinois innovation firm, analyzed U.S. consumer perception of brand sustainability versus actual [climate] sustainability. What they found may surprise you.
CSR Offenders: Weak CSR, Top Consumer Fantasy
Maddock Douglas surveyed data from ten sectors. The list below shows the top firms from each sector with high consumer perception of sustainability, but low actual sustainability. The first number indicates the consumer perception/ the second the actual level.
- Kraft 81/ 42 Perceived sustainability +39 above actual.
- Liz Claiborne 42/ 7 Perceived sustainability +35 above actual.
- Clorox 56/ 27 Perceived sustainability + 29 above actual.
- Amazon.com 60/ 14 Perceived sustainability + 46 above actual.
- Apple 68/ 52 Perceived sustainability +16 above actual.
- Southwest 77/ 40 Perceived sustainability +37 above actual.
- Hyatt 72/ 12 Perceived sustainability + 60 above actual.
- Wendy's 64/ 2 Perceived sustainability +62 above actual.
- FedEx 71/ 55 Perceived sustainability + 16 above actual.
- SunTrust 51/ 2 Perceived sustainability +48 above actual.
CSR Defenders: Top CSR, Weakest Consumer Appreciation
The list below shows firms with the highest sustainability ratings in their sector, but the lowest consumer perception of it.
- Unilever 32/ 79 Perceived sustainability -47 below actual.
- Limited Brands 24/ 35 Perceived sustainability -11 below actual.
- L'Oreal 33/ 67 Perceived sustainability - 34 below actual.
- News Corp 16/ 68 Perceived sustainability -52 below actual.
- Siemens/ Hitachi tied: Perceived sustainability -42 below actual.
- British Airways 47/ 36 Perceived sustainability +11 above actual * Interestingly, consumers rated all airlines above their actual sustainability.
- Starwood 16/ 24 Perceived sustainability -8 below actual.
- Starbucks 48/ 51 Perceived sustainability -3 below actual.
- DHL 16/ 68 Perceived sustainability -52 below actual.
- Deutsche Bank 37/ 66 Perceived sustainability -29 below actual.
Lessons from the Consumer Perception Winners and Losers
There are important lessons among the customer-perception winners and losers. Winners were innovative, edgy brands like Apple, Amazon, Southwest and Fedex. These firms got sustainability credit though they didn't really deserve it relative to their actual sustainability. But being popular, digital and creating a strong national brand seems to have earned default sustainability laurels with customers. Second, renovated brands like Wendy's and Clorox, or brands that specifically emphasize their green traits, like Clorox and Apple, successfully persuaded consumers. For example, Wendy's spent the last two years distancing itself from the fast-food stigma by claiming that their food is "real", "fresh, never frozen" and "It's waaaay better than fast food. It's Wendy's." Similarly, Clorox has diligently promoted a line of green products called GreenWorks.
Customer perception "losers" shared traits too, chiefly in marketing problems not specific to sustainability. These companies must improve their brands overall. Relatedly, these companies would benefit from working to garner positive press generally. For example, News Corp is almost always publicly criticized in the media, leading to a vague negative association in consumer consciousness. For consumers, this vague negative association is then cognitively incompatible with its high actual sustainability. The losing companies must also deliver clearer, louder messages about sustainability to consumers; if you're doing something good, be sure everyone knows! Finally, the losing companies would do well to personalize their customers' experiences. For example, why doesn't Hitachi or Unilever enjoy the brand worship Apple does? With Unilever's cash reserves, there is no reason it couldn't create a brand cult of its very own.