BOSTON: US consumers are keen to see brands engaged with social and environmental causes, but while they are more likely to buy such products they are also sceptical that they are making any difference due to these purchases.

Cone Communications, the PR agency, conducted an online survey of 1,270 US adults for its 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study and found there had been a 170% increase since 1993 in purchasing of products associated with a cause. This was based on 54% of respondents having bought a product associated with a cause over the previous 12 months.

In addition, there has been a 35% increase in the propensity to switch brands over the last 20 years, with 89% now indicating they would buy a brand associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality, ahead of one that had no such link.

There was a widespread desire to see more of the products and services backing causes (91%), with economic development emerging as priority, cited by 44% respondents, and a wish to feel the impact of corporate efforts in local communities (43%).

Alison DaSilva, executive vice president for Research & Insights at Cone Communications, noted that Americans' inclinations to shop for good had ebbed and flowed over the years, as they faced economic upheaval, political unrest and acts of terrorism. "But one thing remains clear," she said, "consumer demand for cause is stronger than ever, solidifying it as a savvy business strategy."

But the study also showed that just 25% of Americans believed their purchasing habits make any significant difference to the issues that concern them. Moreover, only 16% thought companies had made a significant positive impact on social or environmental issues.

This finding should be a "red flag" for marketers, warned Cone Communications, as corporate efforts were going potentially unnoticed.

"The onus is on companies to go beyond mission statements to provide personally relevant and tangible evidence that collectively, businesses and consumers are moving the needle," said Craig Bida, executive vice president for Social Impact at Cone Communications.

Elsewhere, the report found that Hispanic-Americans were the most socially engaged consumers, being not only more likely than the general population to buy cause-related products but also to donate, volunteer and advocate on behalf of companies as they sought to build a better life for their families and communities.

"Other influential audiences, including African Americans and Millennials, are also populations to watch as this crucial business strategy continues to evolve," noted Bida.

Data sourced from PR Newswire; additional content by Warc staff