Reaching the Socially Conscious Consumer

In the United States, as in the United Kingdom, more and more consumers—especially younger ones—are weighing a company’s efforts in social responsibility when they determine which businesses to patronize. During a presentation at our recent Consumer Trends & Directions conference, Technomic set out to define social responsibility when it comes to the restaurant industry; show how perceptions of social responsibility influence consumers; and look at the impact of social responsibility on business.

Social Responsibility in Restaurants

Social responsibility in restaurants is a complex idea, but has three key aspects:

The environment: This includes recycling programs; packaging (such as disposables made of recycled materials); energy-saving and water-saving practices; and waste disposal and composting. One company doing well in this area is Starbucks. In a growing number of units, the coffee-café chain gives customers the chance to toss paper hot cups into a separate receptacle for recycling or composting.

Community-building: Engagement with the community can involve fundraising; food donation; support of community groups, from providing free meeting space for groups of seniors to sponsoring sports teams; and, particularly in fast-food settings, emphasizing local hiring and offering wages, benefits and advancement opportunities that are better than the industry average. Darden Restaurants, a multiconcept operator whose stable includes The Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among others, brags that its high-profile nonprofit Darden Foundation has awarded more than $71 million in grants to charities since 1995.

Sourcing: Sourcing is simply where the ingredients come from; among other things, socially responsible efforts encompass organic, natural and local items as well as animal welfare (such as free-range poultry and grass-fed beef) and avoidance of hormones and steroids in meat and milk. One chain that has made sourcing key to its brand identity is fast-casual concept Chipotle Mexican Grill, whose “Food With Integrity” promise involves “finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers.” Both suppliers and restaurants must respond to increasing consumer preoccupations with sourcing.

How Social Responsibility Influences Attitudes and Purchases

According to Technomic research, nearly six out of 10 consumers say that when they’re weighing what restaurant to visit, it’s important to them that the establishment be socially responsible.

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Source: Technomic Consumer Brand Metrics 2013

Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics program, which tracks how consumers rate 123 leading restaurant chains on a host of experience and reputation attributes, shows that some chains score much higher on social responsibility issues than others. It’s important to consumers that they perceive a restaurant’s values as aligning with their own, so not everyone rates the same chains highest. Nevertheless, there are clear leaders.

When asked to rate chains on the attribute “is socially responsible,” consumers gave ice cream chain Ben & Jerry’s, quick-service chicken concept Chick-fil-A, and coffee giant Starbucks the highest scores. For the attribute “has values that are similar to my own,” Darden’s polished-casual Seasons 52 concept, Ben & Jerry’s, and family-dining chain Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores came out on top. Consumers rated burger QSR McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Ben & Jerry’s highly on the attribute “supports local community activities.” And for “has an excellent reputation,” consumers ranked fast-casual Panera Bread, high-end steakhouse The Capital Grille, and quick-service In-N-Out Burger as the leading chains.

Social responsibility is more important to certain consumers, including ethnic minorities; younger consumers, including Millennials and Generation Z; and, most importantly, heavy restaurant users, who are visiting restaurants more frequently and having a greater impact on total sales. Younger consumers, especially, perceive social responsibility as part of the value equation in a restaurant experience; they see it as worth something because it makes them feel they are spending their money in a way that lets them feel good about themselves.

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+ Consumers responded on a 1–6 scale where 1 = not important at all and 6 = extremely important  Source: 2013 Value and Pricing Consumer Trend Report, Technomic

Base: 1,500 consumers aged 18+
Consumers responded on a 1–6 scale where 1 = not important at all and 6 = extremely important
Source: 2013 Value and Pricing Consumer Trend Report, Technomic

Looking at specific efforts, around six out of 10 diners say they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that makes charitable donations of leftover food. Almost as many say they would also be willing to pay more for menu items at restaurants that make food donations. Consumers don’t mind the idea of restaurants promoting their food charity programs. In unaided recall, they were most likely to remember Panera Bread, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Starbucks and local independent restaurants as donating food.

Waste disposal is another key issue. More than six out of 10 consumers believe that composting of organic waste is so important that it should be mandated by legislation. Recycling programs for non-food waste are also important to many and can be a strong traffic driver; 47% said they’d be more likely to visit a fast-casual restaurant if it offered recycling, and 43% said the same about fast-food restaurants and coffee cafés. Most of those consumers also said they’d be willing to pay more at restaurants that offered such programs, particularly coffee cafés.

Social responsibility initiatives can deepen a brand’s alignment with its customers and thus build sales, as leading restaurant marketers have attested. In a recent letter to shareholders, Panera Bread wrote “[The Live Consciously, Eat Deliciously initiative] is intended to drive a deeper affiliation between Panera and our customers, and we believe such an effort has the potential to deliver a greater, long-term return on investment from advertising than more promotional messaging.” And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said, “I think that the rules of engagement for a public company are changing…I believe strongly that there’s a new movement to recognize that we have to serve the communities, that’s about keeping the balance between profitability and social consciousness.”

Case Study: Roti Mediterranean Grill

As part of the Socially Conscious Consumer session at Technomic’s Consumer Trends & Directions conference, Peter Nolan, chief brand officer of Roti Mediterranean Grill, an emerging fast-casual chain based in Chicago, spoke about how Roti makes social responsibility part of its brand positioning.

In the old days, Nolan said, healthy eating and socially responsible practices “didn’t work,” but now consumers—particularly younger generations—want to live in sync with their values. He argued that “real” trumps “wow.” Authenticity, transparency and trust are important, Nolan said. Initiatives must be true to the brand’s identity and the values of its executives and employees; socially responsible practices based on marketing research will come off as false. Roti—whose motto is “Food that loves you back”—chooses initiatives that are relevant to its healthy menu, such as in-restaurant cooking classes for low-income kids. Burger restaurant Meatheads, in contrast, supports high school football.

Nolan suggested that packaging is a great way to start. Roti replaced its disposable plates with compostable plates made from sugarcane fiber. Roti composts food waste and lets customers know it donates food to a food bank.

Today’s consumers associate fresh, organic, local and sustainable foods with quality. Nolan noted that smaller companies may believe their distributor wouldn’t supply these ingredients, but if a number of customers ask, the distributor may find a way to accommodate requests.

Finally, he suggested that companies make it a mission and get the word out. Patrons want to get personally involved in charitable activities. For example, if a restaurant is raising money for literacy, it can promote the initiative as giving customers a chance to teach people to read. Restaurants can promote their initiatives via integration with customer loyalty programs, email messages, social media, and even simple in-store signage.

Key Takeaways

Social responsibility can be multifaceted. Environmentally friendly sourcing, a community presence and other aspects may be important to different consumers when they are deciding which restaurant to visit. Consumers respond to and perceive value in social responsibility. A restaurant that’s seen as socially responsible has the opportunity to increase price thresholds as well as traffic.

Marketing opportunities are expanding. Restaurants should leverage the positive vocabulary of social responsibility, communicate their values and programs to their customers, and pursue long-term consumer engagement with social issues, rather than seeing them as mere promotional opportunities.

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