How UK consumers perceive sustainability communications and reporting in food retail.
It’s been 5 months since I submitted my MBA dissertation at the end of May. I have taken a well deserved summer break as I’ve been focussing on starting a new role at work in the customer experience team. The COP 26 conference has kicked off today and it seemed like the right time to finally hit publish on my findings given the active discussion that’s about to ensure on the role businesses can play in helping us cut our emissions.
In the spirit of transparency and having something tangible to show for my 5 months of research, here’s an overarching summary of the key findings and conclusions from my work. I’m keen to share with people working in marketing, food retail and sustainability so if you’d like to see a more detailed summary of the research or indeed the full dissertation contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn and I’ll happily share a copy.
To help condense my learnings into a digestible blog I’ve created some too long, didn’t read (TL/DR) summaries to help you skim read the key conclusions and insights gathered from the research. I will also do a separate blog on my overall reflections on conducting a part-time dissertation while working. You can see my mid-point blog covering what I’d learned in year one.
Disclaimer — Some of the following content is academic in tone and style as it is extracted from my dissertation.
Research background in a nutshell
My MBA research explored the role food businesses need to play in reducing their impact on the planet and how businesses communicate progress and impact to consumers in relation to achieving their environmental goals. The research sought to understand how consumers perceive sustainability communications and reporting. From a review of the literature, the academic disciplines of corporate governance and ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), financial accounting, reporting, and marketing communications, are being challenged to apply interdisciplinary collaboration and joint-research initiatives. A research gap was identified in relation to UK customer perceptions of food retailers’ CSR commitments and sustainability communication. 2021 presented an opportunity to explore these perceptions in light of the shift towards more purposeful forms of business and set within the socio-economic context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The interest of this research was not to generate new theories. The research uses existing social signalling theory constructs, ( marketing friendly summary) as a foundation to frame how consumers perceive food retailers’ CSR communication signals. For the background to my research and the objectives see my earlier post.
To help condense my learnings into a digestible blog I’ve created some too long, didn’t read TL/DR summaries to help you skim read the key conclusions and insights gathered from the research.
- The individual, the corporation, and the society are not separable
- Businesses face a challenge around how to re-shape consumer perceptions once they are formed e.g. Iceland having a stigma around not being sustainable, even though they have made significant commitments to become plastic free
- The pandemic has caused significant disruption to the signalling environment
- External market shocks distort and re-shape receiver and signals
- There is a challenge to academia to incorporate stakeholders affected by the down sides of capitalism
- Academics need to better explore transdisciplinary research approaches given the pressing challenges facing individuals, corporations, and society in tackling climate change.
Longer form narrative version
What became apparent through the dissertation research was that ‘the individual, the corporation, and the society are not separable’ there is an ongoing dialogue which places the communications environment as playing a mediating role between the retailer/brand aka signaller and the customer aka the receiver. However academic signalling theory and the Corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature seems to underplay the role of inherent perceptions that have been formed as pre-existing mental models in the mind of the receiver. It’s evident the pandemic has caused significant disruption to the signalling environment and how external market shocks distort and re-shape receiver and signals.
Researchers need to begin to combine multiple theoretical perspectives to uncover rich and complex ways of explaining firm behaviour with respect to sustainable business practice and how this is perceived by consumers. There would seem to be a paradigm shift taking place where there’s early signs around the need for a philosophical re-framing of CSR.
Implications for the retail sector
TL/DR Alternative marketing tactics
- Explore storytelling tactics to explain how products are manufactured and sourced
- There is untapped opportunities for internal and external ambassadors
- Consider how delivery propositions can be a sustainable differentiator
Longer form narrative
Storytelling around the manufacturing of products
Not all retailers think about the holistic role product storytelling can play in relation to communicating CSR commitments to consumers. Developing stories and profiles of suppliers, growers and producers enables retailers to tell the story of how food is made and where it comes from. From the research, a number of retailers were identified such as Co-op, M&S and Waitrose — in particular doing this well in an omni-channel context across TV, print and email. Transparent and honest communication that links into local sourcing had a high degree of resonance with participants.
Internal and external ambassadors
Word of mouth and peer networks came through as a powerful influencing signal. Food retailers and brands could explore how to leverage product ambassadors as a way to enable consumers to be advocates externally. In connection to this, there was evidence that companies that take the time to articulate what CSR meant to their staff, translated into employees being signallers on behalf of the brand. So, paying attention to the CSR messages retailers communicate internally and training is a quick win to help communicate CSR commitments.
During the interviews, food retailers’ delivery propositions came up a number of times with mixed consumer perceptions. This was regarding the environmental impact of online shopping deliveries compared to the efficiency of physically shopping in store. There was confusion across the participants as to whether delivery or in-person shopping is better in terms of emissions, as well as legacy perceptions around retailers like Iceland not offering delivery services. As food e-commerce continues to grow exponentially, there is a tactical marketing opportunity for food retailers to weave sustainability messages within their delivery propositions.
B Corporation — application of learnings in practice
The semi-structured interviews provided a wealth of feedback on the B Corporation proposition. This included a number of practical improvements to their B Lab impact website to make it easier for consumers to understand what B Corp is. For example, there is a recurring pop-up on the page for newsletter subscription that was off-putting to participants. Serendipitously I know the product manager within B Lab UK, so have shared these findings with a view to B Lab practically benefitting from the research conducted.
Broader implications beyond retail
TL/DR Key points:
- There needs to be CSR signal alignment within organisational design structures
- Scope for alternative propositions and signalling theory to be explored
- Customer experience (CX) and CSR — is a new frontier
- Opportunities to improve the perception of B Corps
- More research is needed into marketing sustainable forms of business
Longer form narrative
CSR signal alignment within organisational design structures
A theme that emerged during the interviews is further scope to explore the perception of CSR across a company between its leaders and front-line colleagues. This would explore the strategic alignment and understanding of CSR within an organisation and internal alignment relates to external perception. There is also an additional opportunity to apply the conceptual framework to understand leaders as signallers within the context of employees being the receiver.
Proposition development and signalling theory
This research chose to focus on broad generic marketing signals in relation to channels such as TV and advertising. Therefore, there is scope to further explore specific propositions in relation to signalling theory and CSR. For example, food retailers’ delivery propositions came up a number of times with mixed consumer perceptions with regards to online shopping deliveries’ environmental impact compared to the efficiency of physically shopping in store. Lastly, the resounding strength of consumer preference for own-brand labelled products stands out as an opportunity for more nuanced own brand research in relation to the perception of food retailers’ CSR commitments and reporting capabilities.
Customer experience and CSR
There is scope for marketing and CSR scholars to explore the interplay of customer experience touch-points when conveying CSR commitments in a purely online environment. While the majority of interview participants were shopping in-person, the rise of e-commerce shopping means that retailers need to consider how they convey CSR commitments without in-store and physical packaging touch-points. This presents an interesting area for further research and draws marketing and sustainability research into emergent areas of business practice.
Perception of B Corps is a nascent research area
The literature review identified that B Corp research within the UK was a nascent area of academic exploration. As a result of this exploratory approach, a number of future research avenues have been identified. In the context of the research findings there is scope for further research into how B Corps signal their proposition to UK consumers. It became clear during the interviews that there was limited awareness or understanding of the movement. There is also an interesting B2B-specific opportunity to explore how B Corps provide assets and materials to enable their certified businesses to advocate and tell the story about what it means to be a B Corp. This leverages the insights around storytelling as an engaging signalling method.
Marketing sustainable business models and structures
It is evident that more research is needed to ascertain how best to market purposeful forms of business. This acknowledges Connelly et al’s (2011a) challenge around academics applying multiple theories, as well as exploring new theoretical models to build new knowledge around sustainability and marketing.
I’m keen to join-up with other like minded individuals across my networks to take part in discussions and panel events to share my findings and keep up the conversation on the role business, academia and society can play to find solutions to how we tackle climate change.