The concept of social responsibility holds that businesses should be good citizens, balancing their money-making operations with activities that benefit society, be it on a local, national or global scale. Social responsibility in marketing involves focusing efforts on attracting consumers who want to make a positive difference with their purchases. Many companies have adopted socially responsible elements in their marketing strategies as a means to help a community via beneficial services and products.

Interestingly, the philanthropic practice can be a good business tool as well. "Some 52% of US consumers factor values into their purchase choices," seeking brands that "proactively promote beliefs and values aligned with their own," noted a 2017 presentation "The Power Of A Values-Based Strategy," by Forrester Research, a market research company that advises corporate clients. "The Sustainability Imperative," a 2015 report by Nielsen that surveyed 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, found that 66% of consumers were willing to pay more for goods from brands that demonstrated social commitment. And a 2017 "Corporate Social Responsibility" study by public relations and marketing firm Cone Communications indicated that 87% of Americans will purchase a product because its company advocated for an issue they cared about.

How Social Responsibility in Marketing Works

Recyclable packaging, promotions that spread awareness of societal issues and problems, and directing portions of profits toward charitable groups or efforts are examples of social responsibility marketing strategies. For example, a clothing company's marketing team may launch a campaign that encourages consumers to buy a bundle of its socks versus one pair; for every bundle sold, the company donates a bundle of socks to military personnel overseas or to local homeless shelters. As a result of these donations, the company brands itself as socially responsible and ethical, which ultimately attracts customers who are engaged in socially responsible commitments and who want to support the welfare of the community.

Corporate responsibility goes hand in hand with socially responsible practices. For example, administrators, executives, and shareholders and stakeholders must practice ethical behaviors and join the community in promoting responsible marketing efforts. Putting on appearances or greenwashing, the practice of promoting deceptively environmentally friendly processes or products indicates to customers that the company is not committed to social responsibility; such behaviors can ultimately hurt the brand and the company's success. Consumers often can see through gimmicks, slogans, or efforts that are not genuine or ineffectual. In fact, 65% of the Cone study respondents say they'll research a company's stand on an issue, to see if it's being authentic.

Real Life Example of Social Responsibility in Marketing

Some critics question the concept of social responsibility in marketing, noting that these highly publicized, expensive campaigns are colorful but highly limited (both in scope and in duration), and do little to eradicate the root sources of problems. They wonder if it wouldn't be more efficient if companies—or consumers, for that matter—just contributed funds directly to charities or philanthropic causes.

Certainly, the strategies that seem the most effective are those in which a company finds a way to link its core product directly to its socially responsible endeavor, and also to broaden its efforts. The popular Toms label is a case in point. The shoe and sunglasses maker began in 2007 with its "one for one" campaign: For every pair of slip-ons or boots bought, Toms donated a pair of shoes to a child in need; for every pair of glasses, it paid for an eye exam and treatment for an impoverished person.

Although it has furnished millions with shoes and eye care, and the buy-one-donate-one model has been adopted by other trendy brands, Toms' founder Blake Mycoskie decided it wasn't enough. To address more underlying issues of poverty, he committed to manufacturing shoes in areas around the globe where he donated them—Cuba, India, Kenya. As of 2019, Toms has created more than 700 jobs. The company also has its eye on improving infrastructure: Having expanded into coffee, Toms donates proceeds of its sales to building clean-water systems in the communities where the beans are grown.

The Bottom Line

Although an initial investment may be involved to share profits or donate to those in need, social responsibility in marketing promotes a positive company image, which can significantly impact profitability and even productivity favorably.