A benchmark survey has confirmed what credit card companies have known -- that consumers appreciate cause-related marketing and want to see more of it.

American Express Co. was one of the first U.S. companies to conduct cause-related marketing a decade ago with its support of the Statue of Liberty renovation. Since then, hundreds of companies, including MasterCard International and Visa International, have adopted causes to create a positive corporate image and increase brand awareness and sales.

Cone/Coughlin Communications Inc., a Boston-based strategic marketing communications firm, commissioned a nationwide survey to determine consumer attitudes and awareness about cause-related marketing.

Up to this point, only anecdotal evidence existed to guide companies in their efforts to support a cause, noted John Mohrbacher, the social venture director for Cone/Coughlin.

Roper/Starch Worldwide Inc., the New York-based opinion and marketing firm, conducted in-home interviews in August 1993 with a cross section of 1,981 men and women, ages 18 and older. The margin of error was plus or minus 3%.

Cone/Coughlin defines cause-related marketing as tying a company and its products to an issue or cause to improve sales and corporate image while providing benefits to the cause.

'A Relationship Enhancer'

Cause-related marketing can distinguish credit card companies that are "knocking heads looking for every possible edge," Mr. Mohrbacher said.

"The concept, as it evolves, moves from a gimmick to 'this is what we stand for and you as a user can relate to,'" he said. "It's a relationship enhancer."

The Cone/Roper study found 71% of those surveyed said cause-related marketing is a good way to help solve social problems. Consumers interviewed for the survey said they want companies to focus on local issues, especially those affecting children. And they want companies to commit to the issue for a year or more.

While 68% believe that many of the cause-related efforts companies make are credible, 58% still remain skeptical, suspecting these efforts may just be for "show" to improve a company's image, the survey found.

When price and quality are equal, 31% of consumers surveyed said a company's responsible business practices play an important role in whether to buy a brand or not. Two out of 10 consumers said they bought a product or service in the past 12 months because it was associated with a cause or issue.

Roper/Starch has been surveying consumers since 1975 about whta considerations they make when buying a certain brand of product of service. When price and quality are equal, 77% of those surveyed said past experience with a brand influenced their buying decision the most, compared to 31% who cited socially responsible business practices.

Again if price and quality are equal, 25% of all consumers said they would very likely switch to a company associated with a good cause, and 41% said they were somewhat likely to switch.

Cone/Roper segmented a group of influential Americans -- about 19 million people defined primarily by social activism and their role as opinion makers and leaders. The survey found people in this segment are more likely than consumers at large to make a cause-related purchase and to switch brands to support such marketing.

Another influential group -- consumers living in households with incomes of $50,000 and above -- are more likely than average consumers to consider switching brands because of cause-related marketing.

Mr. Mohrbacher said if these two groups want more cause-related marketing, others will too.

The survey indicates that consumers want companies to donate money thorugh a foundation, through a percentage of sales or profit, or by creating social programs. More than 80% say it is acceptable for a company to hold and advertise high-profile events and fund-raisers.

Consumers feel there is a gap between what businesses are and should be focusing on, Mr. Mohrbacher said. The greatest gap exists for crime, homelessness, the quality of public education, child abuse, poverty, and hunger. But consumers said companies have focused enough on alcohol abuse, animal rights, and equal rights for women and minorities.

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