NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Your McRib just got a little more animal-friendly.
McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD) announced Monday that it will phase out its use of pork suppliers who coop up their pigs in gestation stalls – small crates that greatly restrict their movement. The move was applauded by animal rights groups who feel that the stalls are inhumane to the animals.
McDonald’s isn’t the only big corporation looking to burnish its socially responsible credentials. Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL), stung by allegations of poor labor practices in the Chinese factories that make its gadgets, announced Monday that it had asked the Fair Labor Association to perform an independent audit of its facilities.
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Clearly both companies are concerned about their public image – and how that image could impact sales. But how much do customers really care about the sometimes-unsavory practices behind the products they love?
Experts say it depends on a variety of factors, some of which involve the complexities of behavioral psychology.
“I think consumers really do care, but at every purchase point there’s an internal committee meeting happening,” says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University who specializes in consumer psychology. “If a parent is really busy, there’s only one place their kid likes to eat, you have a lot of distractions and you don’t have a lot of focus, then you’re likely to completely forget about it.”
Further complicating the matter is that there’s no such thing as a “typical consumer.” Within the subset of consumers who actually care about corporate responsibility, different people support different causes. (Yarrow notes that as a general rule, concerns about animal welfare tend to trump workers’ rights issues.) That means that except in the case of truly egregious corporate wrongdoing, only a select group of potential customers will actually care enough about a particular cause to think twice about their purchase decision – and fewer still will have the time or presence of mind to actually take that into account.
Other companies have strived to make corporate responsibility an integral part of their brand – one prominent example being Chipotle, which ran an ad during the Grammys telling the story behind its food. Once again, though, such appeals are likely to be a hit only among a small group of consumers.
“If they’re trying to appeal to an upscale and more idealistic market, that would probably have a greater impact,” says Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “It’s similar to cage-free eggs – they’re supported by a minority of consumers who buy them at a price premium, but I’m not sure if it would work for all firms.”
Whether a product’s story affects sales also depends largely on whether there really is a guilt-free alternative to the problematic product.