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CONSUMER RESPONSES TO CORPORATE
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (CSR) INITIATIVES
Examining the Role of Brand-Cause Fit in Cause-Related Marketing Xiaoli Nan and Kwangjun Heo
ABSTRACT: Through a controlled experiment, this study demonstrates that an ad with an embedded cause-related marketing (CRM) message, compared with a similar one without a CRM message, elicits more favorable consumer attitude toward the company. This is so regardless of the level of fit between the sponsoring brand and the social cause. Furthermore, when the embedded CRM message involves high versus low brand/cause fit, consumer attitudes toward the ad and the brand are more favorable. Such positive effect of brand/cause fit, however, only emerges for consumers who are high in brand consciousness; for those who are low in brand consciousness, brand/cause fit has no impact on ad or brand evaluations. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives have become increasingly popular among American corporations. A common
form of such activity, referred to as cause-related marketing (CRM), involves a company’s promise to donate a certain amount of money to a nonprofit organization or a social cause when customers purchase its products/services. A well-known CRM

program has been General Mill’s ongoing Yoplait campaign with the slogan “Save Lids to Save Lives,” which promises to donate 10¢ to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation for each yogurt lid returned by customers. To date, this CRM campaign has raised over 10 million dollars for the foundation.

Varandarajan and Menon (1988) categorize CRM among
CSR initiatives that “Do Better by Doing Good.” In other words, CRM not only increases the company’s revenues but
also contributes to societal welfare. They define CRM as:
The process of formulating and implementing marketing
activities that are characterized by an offer from the firm to contribute a specified amount to a designated cause when
customers engage in revenue-providing exchanges that satisfy organizational and individual objectives. (Varandarajan and
Menon 1998, p. 60)

CRM is perhaps more prevalent nowadays than ever before.
From the classic American Express campaign launched in
1983 to the recent Yoplait “Save Lids to Save Life” program, Xiaoli Nan (Ph.D., University of Minnesota–Twin Cities) is an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Kwangjun Heo (M.A., University of North Carolina) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

thousands of companies have engaged in CRM. A survey
conducted by the PMA (Promotion Marketing Association)
and Gable Group (2000) revealed that CRM was being used
by over 85% of the organization’s corporate members. The
prevalence of CRM has drawn research attention from both
the industry and academia. Researchers are confronted with
two prominent issues. The first concerns consumers’ general responses to CRM. That is, do consumers generally think of
and react to this form of marketing tactic favorably? The second issue has to do with the relative effects of different types of CRM. Although both issues could be addressed from the
perspective of either the company or the nonprofit organization involved, research to date has primarily focused on implications for the sponsoring company (e.g., consumer attitudes, purchase intentions, sales, etc.).

In addressing the first issue, researchers have relied on
anecdotal stories, case studies, and surveys that directly ask consumers what they think of CRM and the parties involved,
as well as the extent to which their buying behaviors are likely to be influenced by a company’s CRM programs. While such
research has shown that consumers’ general responses to CRM tend to be positive (e.g., RSW 1993; Webb and Mohr 1998),
one may wonder about the utility of adopting a CRM strategy
compared to a baseline condition where no CRM tactic is used. For instance, will an ad be more effective in terms of enhancing consumer attitudes toward the company and the brand when it has a CRM component versus when it doesn’t have

this feature? Indeed, without a standard of comparison, it is

This research was supported by a USDA grant awarded to the first author. Journal of Advertising, vol. 36, no. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 63–74. © 2007 American Academy of Advertising. All rights reserved. ISSN 0091-3367 / 2007 $9.50 + 0.00.

DOI 10.2753/JOA0091-3367360204

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The Journal of Advertising

difficult to gauge the impact of CRM on consumer responses. Thus, more research that takes a relative approach comparing CRM and a baseline condition is needed to examine consumer
responses to CRM.
The relative effects of different types of CRM, on the other hand, have been more commonly investigated through controlled experiments. This research stream has typically focused on a typology of CRM defined by features of the sponsoring

brand/product/company (e.g., a utilitarian versus hedonic
product; Strahilevitz and Myers 1998) or characteristics of
the involved social cause (e.g., cause familiarity; Lafferty and Goldsmith 2005). However, a unique CRM campaign can
also be defined by relationships between the sponsoring brand and the social cause. One such relationship is the level of “fit” between the brand and the cause, which could potentially
influence consumer responses to the campaign.
The importance of brand/cause fit in CRM has been suggested by marketing scholars (e.g., Drumwright 1996; Strahilevitz and Myers 1998). The communication effects of “fit” have also been a focal research topic in other related areas such as event sponsorship (e.g., Rifon et al. 2004), brand extension (e.g., Aaker and Keller 1990), and celebrity endorsement (e.g., Kamins and Gupta 1994). Yet there has been surprisingly scant research addressing the role of brand/cause fit in determining the effects of CRM. Such research is important, however, on

both theoretical and practical accounts. On a theoretical level, it could better our understanding of the communication effects of “fit” in new contexts. Practically speaking, such research could provide potential guidance for practitioners in selecting appropriate nonprofit partners or social causes in CRM programs. This study, therefore, has two goals. First, it examines the relative effects of CRM versus a baseline condition where

no such strategy is used. It is proposed here that regardless of brand/cause fit, exposure to an advertising message with a CRM component will lead to more favorable consumer
responses than exposure to a similar ad without a CRM component. A second purpose of this study is to investigate the relative effects of a CRM program involving high brand/cause fit versus one that has low brand/cause fit. While it is expected that higher brand/cause fit will elicit more favorable consumer responses, this study further suggests that consumers with high brand consciousness are more sensitive to brand/cause fit, and are thus more influenced by this cue than their counterparts with relatively low brand consciousness. These propositions

were tested through a controlled experiment.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
Consumer Responses to CRM
Since its debut in 1983, CRM has generated extensive discussion in the trade literature (e.g., Braedon 1985; Freeman

and Walley 1998; Smith and Stodghill 1994). Led by a few
conceptual pieces (e.g., Drumwright 1996; Varandarajan and
Menon 1988), scholarly work began to emerge in the 1990s
(e.g., Ross, Patterson, and Stutts 1992; Smith and Alcorn
1991; Strahilevitz and Myers 1998; Webb and Mohr 1998).
Recently, there has been a growing research interest in CRM
(e.g., Barone, Miyazaki, and Taylor 2000; Dean 2004; Hamlin
and Wilson 2004; Lafferty and Goldsmith 2005; Polonsky and
Wood 2001; Pracejus, Olsen, and Brown 2003; Pracejus and
Olsen 2004; Yechiam et al. 2002).
Consumers’ General Responses to CRM
Earlier research has focused on consumers’ general responses to CRM (e.g., Ross, Patterson, and Stutts 1992; Smith and
Alcorn 1991; Webb and Mohr 1998). A variety of consumer
responses, including perceptions of and attitudes toward the company/brand/product, as well as the nonprofit organization (NPO) involved in a CRM campaign, have been examined.
Surveys and interviews were the most common methods for
these studies. Research indicates that consumer attitudes toward companies sponsoring CRM are largely positive (Webb and Mohr 1998). Consumers tend to believe that companies
sponsoring CRM are socially responsible (Ross, Patterson, and Stutts 1992). In addition, willingness to purchase a company’s product is also positively influenced by the company’s CRM activities (Smith and Alcorn 1991).

While these research findings are encouraging to companies using CRM strategies, the absolute nature of the measures makes it difficult to quantify the amount of positive effects that CRM has on consumer responses. In other words, it is

hard to draw any conclusions with regard to the effects of CRM on consumer responses without a standard of comparison. For
instance, it is not readily clear whether an ad with a CRM
component could elicit significantly more positive consumer reactions relative to a similar ad without the CRM message.
This issue has not become a research focus until recently (e.g., Hamlin and Wilson 2004; Lafferty and Goldsmith 2005). In
Hamlin and Wilson’s (2004) study, research participants were exposed to a milk ad either with or without a CRM component. Comparing consumer responses to the regular ad and the ad
with a CRM component, the researchers found that the CRM
cue had no effects on consumer evaluations of the product and purchase intention. In another study, Lafferty and Goldsmith (2005) adopted a pre- and posttest approach, comparing consumer evaluations of a brand before and after exposure to an ad for this brand with a CRM component. The researchers found

that postexposure attitudes toward the brand were significantly more positive than pre-exposure evaluations. While this study in essence used a relative approach to examining the effects of CRM, its design allowed an alternative explanation for the findings. Specifically, because research participants were not

Summer 2007

shown any stimuli during the pre-exposure time, the difference between pre-exposure and postexposure attitudes could be attributed to the mere effect of having been shown an ad during the postexposure time (e.g., the mere exposure effect; Zajonc 1968), rather than to the impact of the CRM message.

Clearly, more research is needed to examine the effects of
CRM on consumer responses relative to a baseline condition
to permit a more quantifiable depiction of the utility of this marketing tactic. Regardless of what baseline condition is
chosen for the purpose of comparison, care should be taken
to maximize the comparability between the CRM condition
and the baseline condition such that any differential effects resulting from exposure to the two different stimuli can be
reliably attributed to the CRM message.
Consumer Responses to Different Types of CRM
Research on CRM is also marked by a particular interest in
the effects of different types of CRM on ...

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