Paul Holmes 23 Feb 2009 // 12:00AM GMT
Despite increasing economic turbulence and mistrust of large corporations, between 70 percent and 80 percent of global consumers understand and embrace the idea that successful companies and organizations, despite their broader social and community obligations, need to focus on their core goal of maintaining profitability.
Nevertheless, the MS&L Global Values study, developed by international public relations firm MS&L Worldwide, found that despite their understanding of the profit imperative, comparable proportions of global consumers also believe that profitability can only be achieved by doing things in a responsible way, according to a new, six-nation consumer survey.
In all six countries studied—the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, Sweden and China—consumers ranked profitability and doing things “right” as the top two values that make companies successful.
While there is a large degree of agreement among consumers in each country about the two values that lead to success, there are variations tied to unique national characteristics. While six in 10 in the U.S., China, the U.K. and Sweden believe that a company can be profitable by having a purpose beyond making money, this sentiment is shared by only half in Italy and France. As another example, consumers in China, the U.K., Italy and France agree that putting a company’s profitability first is the value that most clearly leads to success, followed by doing things that can be done in a responsible way. The reverse is true in the U.S. and Sweden, which both rank making responsible choices above profitability.
“Talking to executives about values and mission statements is relatively common, but asking consumers about their perspectives on what values companies should have is relatively rare,” says Mark Hass, CEO of MS&L Worldwide. “It’s reassuring to know that consumers globally respect the profit imperative, as long as it’s handled in a responsible way.”
Consumers realize that businesses often have to make difficult choices, particularly when economic times are tough. But the study makes clear what consumers require of companies, especially during difficult periods: To be successful, companies must be driven by a strong set of values, and these values must be communicated consistently and transparently.
But can companies really be successful by being completely open and honest with the public about their business practices? The majority of global consumers say yes. When asked how likely it is that an organization or company can be financially successful by being completely open and honest with the public about their business practices, consumers in the U.S. (72 percent) and Sweden (71 percent) said it was very or somewhat likely, followed by Italy (65 percent), China (63 percent), France (55 percent) and the U.K. (51 percent).
The results of the study also demonstrate that consumers around the world believe that companies should have values, just as people do. In China, for example, 77 percent of consumers say it is very or somewhat believable that companies and organizations can have values just the way people do, followed by the U.S. (72 percent), France (68 percent), the U.K. (61 percent), Sweden (55 percent) and Italy (45 percent).
“This study shows that the correlation between transparent communication and corporate success is very strong and very clear,” says Hass. “Consumers are realistic in saying to companies that they understand the need to focus on profits, and also that they understand companies can’t always be completely open about business practices. But the more a company can demonstrate that it operates by a consistent set of core values, and the more it can show how those values reflect a responsible approach to business, the more successful it will be.”
Consumers globally say they can tell a lot about a company’s values by observing how the company handles a crisis or problem. In fact, how companies and executives handle a crisis is the number one indicator of values in the U.S. (84 percent), the U.K. (66 percent), Sweden (81 percent) and France (64 percent) – but not China (48 percent) or Italy (60 percent). First-hand experience with a company’s products is ranked first in China (57 percent), and ties for first in Italy (62 percent), along with interacting with a company’s employees.
The survey also found that the Internet is increasingly critical in communicating values. About half of consumers in all six countries surveyed cite the Internet as a key means for companies to communicate their values with consumers. In the U.S., 59 percent of consumers said they could tell a lot about a company’s real values by searching blogs, message boards and other sources of information on the Internet, followed by Sweden (52 percent), China (51 percent), France (47 percent), Italy (46 percent) and the U.K. (45 percent).