More than three out of four consumers (77 percent) Americans believe that companies have a responsibility to support causes—particularly causes that are relevant to their lives—and say the will reward those that do with increased customer loyalty and purchasing dollars.

The 2004 Cone Corporate Citizenship Study, commissioned by Boston-based strategic marketing and communications firm Cone, provides insight into what issues Americans want companies to support.

Regardless of household income, Americans are most focused on the issues that have a direct impact on their own well-being. In 1993, crime and homelessness were among the top issues. But those have now been replaced by education and health, which were cited by 81 percent of respondents, and the environment, cited by 80 percent.

Other causes generating considerable support included poverty and crime and terrorism (65 percent); youth (59 percent); and housing and community development (56 percent).

“It’s no surprise that education, health, and the environment have broken through as the top priorities Americans want companies to support,” says Carol Cone, founder and chairman of the firm. “Companies know that these issues resonate with customers and employees.”

Faced with an uncertain economy, corporate scandals, and continued industry consolidation, 80 percent of Americans identified workforce retraining as a particularly important education issue.

“Programs which focus on career training and life skills ring true with the public in these unpredictable economic times,” says Alison DaSilva, vice president at Cone. “Corporations which help Americans secure jobs are well-positioned to create positive change, strengthen brand identity, and enhance employee morale.”

She cited Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, which buys brownies for its Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream from Greyston Bakery, an organization that provides employment and training to economically disadvantaged residents of Yonkers.

Interest in job security is also reflected in responses regarding children and youth issues. Seventy-six percent of Americans view career preparation as an appropriate cause for companies to support.

More women than men feel that social issues are important for companies to address. Across most issue categories, a higher percentage of women than men identified issues as important.

“Since women make 80 percent of the household purchasing decisions, companies are aligning with relevant causes as an effective way to build brand relevance and garner customer support,” says Cone. “Macy’s, which supports the American Heart Association’s ‘Go Red for Women’ campaign, has had great success with in-store promotions like the Love Notes Teddy Bear promotion which gave a $1 donation to ‘Go Red for Women’ for each bear purchased. sold out completely within a week.”