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December 12, 2018

Brands Can Do Well by Doing Good

People holding shopping bags


You’re on your way to work and want to pick up a cup of coffee. Your favorite brew is Dunkin’ Donuts. You like the taste, the convenience of getting it on the go and the value for the price. The decision as to where to go is easy, right?

Now let’s look at an alternative scenario. You’re meeting a couple of friends and will be picking up coffee for them as well. Instead of heading for Dunkin’, you find yourself drawn to Starbucks. Why?

How consumers evaluate brands intrigues Zachary Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing. Previous research said consumers base their decisions on the quality and attributes of the product or service and how it meets their needs—in this case, a coffee’s taste, price or convenience. However, other studies show that a firm’s reputation for doing social good—such as Starbucks supporting causes through its Starbucks Foundation—influences brand preference. This is an important factor for companies to consider, as companies invest vast sums in socially responsible activities.

To learn more, Dr. Johnson and Associate Professor Yun Jung Lee, Ph.D., both in the Department of Decision Sciences and Marketing in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, and Minoo Talebi Ashoori, Ph.D., of Purdue University Northwest, examined the relationship between consumer goals and product evaluations and how marketing communications, such as print ads, impact that relationship. The resulting research—”Brand associations: the value of ability versus social responsibility depends on consumer goals“—was published in the Journal of Brand Management in January 2018.

Consumers generally categorize a brand as having what marketers call “ability”—specific attributes—or “social responsibility,” which refers to the company’s involvement in activities for social good.

“Most research has shown that product quality associations are more important than social responsibility associations when evaluating products and that higher product quality leads to stronger consumer evaluations of quality,” Dr. Johnson said. “In contrast, we looked at when a brand is more apt to do well regarding social responsibility.”

Dr. Johnson and his colleagues recruited 366 participants. Some of them were asked to describe an excellent cup of coffee, while others were asked to describe a social experience in a coffee shop. Next, participants were shown one of two ads for a fictitious coffee brand. One ad focused on the coffee’s high quality and the other on the brand’s socially responsible activities. All participants were then surveyed on various aspects of the brand’s value.

When participants were told to think about product attributes and then were shown either the quality-focused ad or a social responsibility ad, the quality-focused ad was evaluated more favorably. However, when participants were told to think about social experiences, they evaluated the social responsibility ad more highly.

The results suggest that a product performs better in brand evaluations when marketing communications match consumer goals, and that consumers associate product abilities with competence and capabilities and social responsibility with warmth and friendliness, much as in social relations among people.

“Social responsibility was shown to have a direct effect on subjective perceptions of quality,” says Dr. Johnson. This indicates that social responsibility associations have greater value, as compared to ability associations, when consumers are focused on social connectedness and social consumption experiences—in this case, chatting with friends over a cup of coffee.

“Corporate social responsibility can positively affect consumer evaluations of brand attributes in a way that product abilities cannot, because of consumers’ social goals regarding warmth and social cohesion,” he said.

The implications for companies, Dr. Johnson said, are that brands can benefit from tailoring their advertising toward the goals of their customers within product-oriented or experience-oriented purchase contexts.

Dr. Johnson’s current research, being conducted with colleagues at Iowa State University, Rutgers University and Murray State University, involves further exploration of social responsibility and ability associations as they relate to brand value.

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