Business executives around the world say brands that operate with “social purpose” have a financial advantage, but few see companies acting in this way, new research reveals.

The Economist’s Social Purpose study highlighted a perception among senior business people of a disconnect between what brands say and what they actually do – and there is a widespread belief among consumers and employees alike that empty words have negative consequences.

Researchers quizzed 1,417 business executives across 103 countries and from a range of industries and found that 70% of respondents agreed that it was important they worked for a company that operates with a social purpose.

But 78% said too many brands merely talk the talk and don’t actually deliver by launching long-term initiatives. This view was most strongly held (84%) by millennial and Gen Z executives.

And that was close to home for some respondents as less than two-thirds (63%) said their own company had a strong commitment to social causes.

Around half (48%) believed companies that do operate with a genuine social purpose have a financially competitive advantage over rivals, but a broadly similar proportion (53%) agreed that it was hard to identify brands that operated with social purpose at their core.

There was a distinct gender gap in the views expressed around this subject, with women significantly more likely to believe that brands need to engage and act on social initiatives and that there are damaging financial consequences if they fail to do so (62% v 47%).

And the fallout is not just financial, as three quarters (74%) of those surveyed said the next generation of employees would increasingly look for employers that emphasise and act on a need for social change.

This was especially the case in North America, where 78% agreed, compared to 72% in Europe and just 66% in the Middle East and Africa.

“The returns on this activity are broader than basic profit,” said Mark Cripps, CMO of The Economist Group.

“Acting with purpose influences staff recruitment and their well-being; it influences how stakeholders and partners interact with companies and, with all else being equal, in certain product categories, it influences how consumers perceive products and brands.”

Sourced from The Economist Group; additional content by WARC staff