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. The research is plentiful. According to a presentation titled "The Power of a Values-Based Strategy" by Forrester Research, a market research company that advises corporate clients, "some 52% of U.S. consumers factor values into their purchase choices," seeking brands that proactively promote beliefs and values aligned with their own.

In addition, a report by Nielsen that surveyed 30,000 consumers in 60 countries also found that 66% of consumers were willing to pay more for goods from brands that demonstrated social commitment. Finally, a study by public relations and marketing firm Cone Communications found 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 socks versus just one pair. Using this model, the company can donate a bundle of socks to military personnel overseas or to local homeless shelters for each bundle sold. As a result of these donations, the company brands itself as socially responsible and charitable, which ultimately attracts customers who are motivated by 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, shareholders, and stakeholders must practice ethical behaviors and join the community in promoting responsible marketing efforts. Solely putting on appearances or greenwashing, the practice of promoting deceptive environmentally-friendly processes or products, indicates to customers that the company is not committed to social responsibility. Instead, 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 effective. 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.

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), doing 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 shoemaker began in 2006 with its "one for one" campaign: for every pair of slip-on or boots bought, TOMS donated a pair of shoes to a child in need. Similarly, for every pair of glasses, it paid for an eye exam and treatment for an impoverished person.

Although TOMS 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 received a lot of criticism regarding the materialistic approach to tackling poverty, and even "dumping shoes" to children who perhaps didn't need any. As a pivot to address more underlying issues of poverty, Mycoskie committed to manufacturing shoes in areas around the globe where he donated them. As of 2019, TOMS reports that it has donated more than 95 million pairs of shoes, aided in 780,000 sight restorations, and provided 722,000 weeks of safe water. The company also has its eye on improving infrastructure: having expanded into coffee, TOMS donates the 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 an enhanced company image, which can significantly impact profitability and even productivity favorably.