'Consumers Are Not Stupid': It's Tough Making Some Brands 'Responsible'

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For messages of social responsibility to work, consistency and commitment are key

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Paris Hilton would have you believe that she is not the ditzy celebutante she so effortlessly portrays on TV. She's a levelheaded person, she says, mindful of the silliness surrounding and emanating from her, and sorry for the crimes she committed. In her first post-jail interview with Larry King a few years ago, she was quick to point out that she was a changed woman, done with being "cute," and eager to devote time to philanthropic work.

Sadly for Hilton, very few have since bought into the Paris 2.0 brand. Her most recent "reality" program debuted to paltry numbers-400,000 viewers, or a mere three percent of her The Simple Life audience nearly eight years ago.

The trouble is not just that people are no longer amused with Paris's brand; it's that many are confused by it. No one, it seems, truly knows if Hilton is dumb or savvy, spoiled or reformed, selfish or selfless. And when brands exhibit such inconsistencies, consumers find it hard to swallow proclamations of social responsibility, according to a forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research study.

"Marketers use messages of corporate social responsibility (CSR) under the expectation that consumers reward brands with a favorable CSR image," says study coauthor Carlos Torelli, citing a McKinsey global survey where 76 percent of executives said CSR efforts add to long-term shareholder value. But people also "seem to be a bit skeptical of CSR actions from for-profit entities," he notes.

"When people see an ad where a brand known for self-enhancement promotes a CSR message, something doesn't feel right," Torelli says.

Torelli, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, worked with University of South Carolina's Alokparna Basu Monga, and University of Georgia's Andrew Kaikati for the study. Across four experiments, they tested the concepts or characteristics brands evoke against messages of social responsibility, and measured their effects on participants' brand evaluations and ability to process information. They found that CSR messages from brands associated with excitement and openness (Apple) or tradition and conservation (Aunt Jemima) are swiftly understood and accepted. On the contrary, when brands that suggest luxury, power, or status (Rolex) espouse their good deeds, their efforts aren't as well-received.

"When people see an ad with two opposing motivations, as when a brand known for self-enhancement promotes a CSR message, something doesn't feel right," Torelli explains. Consumers sense a disfluency or a motivational conflict between the brand's self-aggrandizing ethos and its selfless CSR message that results in distrust and less favorable appraisals. "This experience," he adds, "occurs rather spontaneously without any conscious deliberation on the merits of the CSR argument."

Zeynep Gürhan-Canli, the director of Koç University's graduate business school, says the use of these automatic abstractions or concepts is a novel approach to CSR research, as it can potentially enable marketers to gauge their brands' congruity, or lack thereof, with CSR messages. CB Bhattacharya, a corporate responsibility professor at Berlin's ESMT European School of Management and Technology, agrees: "This research effectively deconstructs fit well beyond the stale rhetoric of whether a computer company is better served by supporting education rather than the rainforests," he says.

The problem remains, though, for brands synonymous with power, self-enhancement, and/or luxury that may truly want to be altruistic or at least benefit from CSR. "It's a tall order for the Louis Vuittons of the world to abandon their basic positioning for CSR," Bhattacharya says, noting, "those who adopt a CSR-based positioning usually do it from the get go."

Still, Torelli says those who manage prestige brands do have recourses to avoid the pitfalls of corporate social responsibility. In their messages, they may use phrases, such as "although what you are about to read might seem contradictory," to prompt consumers to reflect on their subjective experience of disfluency, and enable them to decide more rationally and less impulsively. Torelli also encourages the use of a sub-brand for the same reason. "Introducing a CSR image under a sub-brand approach should encourage anticipating the inconsistent CSR action and shield the [mother brand] from the negative effects of disfluency," he explains.

Golden Gate University marketing professor Michal Ann Strahilevitz offers an alternate solution: consistency. To illustrate her point, she cites the case of Angelina Jolie, who a decade ago was not taken seriously when she began helping people in need, presumably because her actions conflicted with her sexy, reckless image. Since Jolie persisted with philanthropy, however, her brand was revamped over time and perhaps even improved.

As for Hilton, Strahilevitz says her one-shot CSR announcement ultimately backfired because she didn't see her promise through. "Consumers are not stupid," she says. "If you want people to take your CSR efforts seriously, you need to display authentic commitment."



This post also appears on PsychologyToday.com.
Image: Tim Green atoach/flickr

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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