This post first appeared on Katya Andresen’s site, www.nonprofitmarketingblog.com.
When a company contributes to your cause, how does it affect
how people feel about the company? If you’re a nonprofit, it’s important to be
able to answer this question. Why? Because most companies have twin agendas
when they support a cause: doing good and doing well. The longest-standing
partnerships are those that not only provide value to the nonprofit but also to
the company’s philanthropic AND business agendas. If you want to engage
corporate partners, it’s important to understand both.
So, I’m going to share some interesting new research on how
corporate social responsibility (CSR) and cause marketing can do that. Consider
it useful fodder for your corporate partnership pitches.
First, let me share the basics that are well known in
research. CSR can create a brand halo for a company. It makes consumers more
likely to view the company as likeable and trustworthy. It might inspire brand
loyalty. And if price and quality are considered comparable, a consumer might
be more likely to choose a socially responsible company’s product over the
competition. All good reasons for a company to support your cause.
But how does a company’s social responsibility affect how
consumers actually view its products? Do consumers think the products are
better if the company is invested in good causes? This has been a question with
frustratingly few answers over the years. Some past research has suggested that
the more active a company is in social responsibility, the more consumers might
question product performance. For example: is that chemical-free counter
cleaner from that tree-hugging corporation really going to work? Consumers may
So it’s exciting that a new set of studies from Alexander Chernev and Sean Blair of the
Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
tackle the specific issue of how CSR influences the way products are perceived.
Their paper, “Doing Well by Doing Good: The Benevolent Halo of Social Goodwill”
describes several studies that led to four conclusions by the researchers.
1) To consumers, good company = good product
The first big finding is that when consumers think a company
is socially responsible, they are more inclined to view the product as better
than others. The study described in the Chernev and Blair paper describes a
winery that donated a portion of proceeds to charity. People who knew this act
of good perceived the wine as superior. So CSR can enhance perceived product
performance! But read on–it’s critical that it is the COMPANY, not necessarily
the product, that be viewed as socially “good.”
2) Consumer mindset dictates when “good” matters
In research with a hypothetical running shoe, consumers were
more likely to feel the product was better because of the company’s CSR if they
were in an abstract rather than concrete mindset. The researchers got consumers
to think abstractly by asking why they exercised. They got a separate group of
people to think concretely by focusing them on how they exercise. When people
were focused on the “why,” they were more influenced by the social good of the
company. This finding is in line with fundraising research, which shows people
are more generous when in an emotional mindset.
3) A socially responsible company trumps socially
Here’s the most surprising finding: a socially responsible
company may drive more business than a socially responsible product. People
feel better about a product that is created by a company that donates to green
causes than a company that created a product with environmentally friendly
technology. The researchers tested sunscreen, bug spray, laundry detergent and
air conditioner refrigerant that had attributes such as being chemical-free and
tested that against a company that made one of those products and donated 10%
of sales to charity. What was interesting was consumers tended to favor the
latter–maybe because they worried “social good” meant a less effective product.
When “social good” was decoupled from the product and assigned to the company
as a whole, people felt the best about the product. They believed it meant
4) Consumers smell self-interest a mile away
People like companies that do social good, but that warm
feeling can be attenuated when they sense crass corporate self-interest behind
those good works. For me, this finding echoes the truth equation from Charles Green, which says trust is the sum of credibility,
reliability and security DIVIDED by the self-orientation of the company (or
person). Self-orientation is self-interest and refers to how much an
organization is perceived as focusing on itself vs. others. The more a company
seems focused on its own needs, the bigger the denominator in the trust
equation and the lower the level of trust. This seems to hold true in CSR too. A
study with a pretend company named eco-Inks showed that its self-interested
advertising about the product’s petroleum-free attribute was far less effective
than putting that messaging in its CSR outreach–or having a nonprofit speak to
the merits of the company.
by Katya Andresen
See more on this topic and Katya’s takeaways at www.nonprofitmarketingblog.com.
Also, on Tuesday, October 16 at 1 p.m. ET,
Katya is hosting a free
webinar on storytelling. She will talk
to Lisa Cron, author of “Wired for Story,” about the essential ingredients of a strong story and how to
For more reading on cause marketing, see the Page to Practice™ book summaries, Cause Marketing for Nonprofits: Partner for Purpose, Passion and Profits by Jocelyne Daw and Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses by Alice Korngold. See Joe Waters' articles, "The four great truths of cause marketing" and "Six cause marketing promotions you can learn from," and check out his book Cause Marketing for Dummies (Wiley, 2011).