Recent Study Finds Cause Marketing Affects How Consumers Perceive Product Performance

Academic research in cause marketing has long centered around the degree to which the practice affected things like reputation, goodwill, consumer loyalty, or how cause marketing could preserve pricing power. A new study finds that a corporation’s ‘pro-social activities’ positively influence how consumers feel about how their actual products perform.

The study, called 'Doing Well By Doing Good: The Benevolent Halo of Social Goodwill' featured a series of four experiments by Sean Blair, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, and Alexander Chernov, and associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.

In the first experiment attendees at an executive education seminar were given wine to taste in plastic cup. A card accompanied the wine that described the winery that made the wine. Some of the tasters read a card with a sentence that explained that the wine donated 10% of sales to the American Heart Association. Other tasters saw no such sentence. After sampling the wine the tasters were asked to rate the wine on a 9-point scale.

Tasters that saw the sentence rated the wine significantly better than those who did not. But wine experts were hardly moved compared to non-experts.

In the second experiment, Blair and Chernov recruited people via Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online crowdsourcing platform. Some were put in a concrete mindset with a question (list five ways you exercise) versus others that were put an abstract mindset with another question (list five reasons why you exercise). Both those in the concrete and abstract mindset were provided the same information about the company, but some were also told about the company’s socially responsible behaviors. Some were also told that the company donated 15 percent of its revenues to a diabetes research cause.

Then the subjects were shown a picture of a shoe from the company and asked to rate on a 9 point scale how comfortable they thought it would be. People in the abstract mindset were significantly more affected by the cause association than those in the concrete mindset.

In the third experiment the researchers tried to dial the results in a little. Would the ‘positive effect demonstrated in the first two experiments… be more pronounced when the domain of the social goodwill is not directly related to the company’s products”? Again, Mechanical Turk was utilized. Respondents were asked about four products; sunscreen, laundry detergent, bug spray and air conditioner refrigerant. Sometimes the information the respondents were given referenced product attributes (‘chemical-free’) others were told about cause marketing donations to an environmental cause.

Those shown the information about the cause marketing donation, what the experimenters term ‘charity condition’ believed that the products in question would significantly outperform than those who were told about product attributes.

The final experiment pitted claims made in corporate advertisements versus those made by an independent entity, in this case a by nonprofit organization that was said to evaluate corporate claims.

In this experiment, “the researchers find that the benevolent halo effect is a function of consumer beliefs about a firm’s motivation, such that it is attenuated when consumers suspect that the social goodwill is motivated by self-interest.”     

I’m glad for the fourth experiment in particular as a counter-balance to the findings in the first three. If all it took for companies to improve consumers perceptions of their products was to launch a straight-forward transactional cause marketing effort then the potential for abuse would be high.

This is terrific study, worth your time to drill down on.

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