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RESEARCH BRIEF: Perceptions of corporate motives for CSR affect consumer behavior

Takeaway: Cause-related marketing initiatives can become a liability and diminish positive consumer perceptions about a firm if consumers believe social causes supported by the company are not a good fit with the brand, or have been undertaken for the wrong reasons. CSR leaders and marketers should select social programs carefully and ensure that their communications make the right connections so that consumers perceive initiatives as proactive, aligned, and socially motivated.

Suggested audience: Marketing executives, communication executives, corporate citizenship managers

Many consumer product companies use cause-related marketing to influence consumers and differentiate their products. Well-designed initiatives can provide benefits to society and to the company. Research suggests that consumers will punish firms that are perceived as insincere in their social involvement.

This study looked at how perceptions of cause-related marketing initiatives influence consumers’ beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. The three factors were:

  • Fit: Perceived link between a cause and the firm’s product line, brand image, position, and/or target market
  • Motive: Consumers’ perceptions of the reasons the company undertook the initiative.
  • Timing: Support for ongoing causes vs. reaction to a specific event for which the company is responsible

Key findings
The fit of the cause and the brand were found to be extremely important. High-fit initiatives were questioned less by consumers. Low-fit initiatives elicited more thinking in general and elicited more thoughts among consumers questioning the company’s motives. High-fit initiatives that were perceived to be motivated primarily by profit or other firm-centered outcomes also led to firm motives and credibility being questioned more. Additionally:

  • Low-fit initiatives negatively impact consumer beliefs, attitudes, and intentions toward a company no matter what the firm’s motivation.
  • When consumers think an initiative is undertaken to counterbalance something negative for which the company is responsible – widespread layoffs or child labor, for example – they question the company's motives and are more likely to respond negatively to the initiative
  • 80 percent of respondents believed firms should engage in social initiatives and 76 percent felt those initiatives would benefit firms
  • 52 percent of respondents stated they would boycott firms that acted irresponsibly if reasonable alternatives were available.

If citing, please refer to the original article: “The impact of perceived corporate social responsibility on consumer behavior”, Journal of Business Research 59 (2006) 46– 53, Karen L. Becker-Olsen, Lehigh University, B. Andrew Cudmore, Florida Institute of Technology, Ronald Paul Hill, University of South Florida

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