Many companies consider their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs as a powerful means of enhancing their corporate image. A few of them even ask their PR or advertising agencies to recommend ideas for CSR activities or projects that can be, well, marketed well. However, this approach inevitably skews the choice of potential CSR projects to a handful few that almost-guarantee a certain volume of buzz or favourable publicity, eschewing ideas that would perhaps be a better fit for the business and reap benefits more than just a questionable increase in goodwill towards the corporation.

This ‘questionable increase in goodwill’ is a ground worth exploring: whether there is evidence yet that CSR programs help enhance the corporate image in the minds of consumers. An even more important question to ask follows. Can a firm’s CSR activities help it sell more, because the consumers have a more positive image of the company or its brands? The short answer is a qualified no, as a clutch of research studies seem to suggest. The longer answer, as we are fond of saying, is more nuanced, and full of insights for marketers and corporate communications professionals.

In a widely cited 2001 study, researchers Sankar Sen and C. B. Bhattacharya showed that the effect on consumer behavior from CSR activities was fairly complex and depended on a host of factors related to the company, the type of activity, the perceived quality of its products and finally, the consumers’ favorability and support for CSR.

They also found companies with negative CSR (seen as socially-irresponsible) had far more to lose in the minds of consumers than companies with positive CSR – “only those most supportive of the CSR issues react positively to positive CSR information”. Further, businesses should be careful and proactively dispense a possible notion that their CSR focus is hurting their ability to produce goods and services of high-quality. In advice to marketers, they noted “if a company’s choice of CSR domain is dictated at all by market considerations rather than just by ideology, managers may want to research a variety of CSR initiatives and select those that enjoy the highest and most widespread support” among the company’s prized consumers.

These findings were somewhat supported in a 2006 study by Karen Becker-Olsen, Andrew Cudmore and Ronald Paul Hill. The trio found that CSR activities not completely aligned with a firm’s corporate objectives or its stated values could actually have a negative impact on consumer attitudes. Further, CSR activities that are perceived as profit-motivated; even if they are aligned to corporate objectives, have the same negative impact. Finally, the researches concluded that the timing of the activity also mattered; reactive CSR projects that were forced by natural disasters, stakeholder pressures or any other corporate crises were found to be resulting in less favorable attitudes among the consumers than proactive projects.

More recently, a 2014 paper by Magdalena Öberseder, Bodo Schlegelmilch and Patrick Murphy rejected the notion that CSR would have a positive direct impact on consumers’ purchase intentions. Given the complexities encountered in measuring the linkages between CSR and consumer perceptions; the implications for marketers are clear:

  • Done the right way, CSR can lead to enhancement of a company’s image, but it does not necessarily lead to higher sales.
  • To maximise their opportunity to generate positive consumer attitudes, managers, when choosing a CSR project, need to pay special attention to a strategic fit with the corporate objectives. They must choose projects or activities with genuine no-profit motives, and also make this selection proactively without being forced by an external hand.
  • Finally, it may help to research consumer support for a given CSR initiative before its adoption, if image-enhancement is the primary and driving factor.

Research also suggests that when forming an impression of a company, consumers use corporate ability (their judgment of a corporation’s ability to produce and market goods or services of high quality) and corporate social responsibility as the determining factors. CSR therefore can be a powerful way for companies to reveal their heart and soul – their strategic goals and values – to create a powerful corporate personality differentiator. Further, they should ensure that their communications firmly establish the connection between the CSR activities and the firm so that consumers perceive these initiatives as genuinely proactive and motivated by interests other than profits.

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