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
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