Cause marketing? Go easy on the guilt-tripping


Cause marketing can be a powerful way for brands to get involved in sustainability-related issues but the tone of their communications is critical to success, according to an academic study.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, Benedetta Crisafulli (University of London), Jaywant Singh (Kingston Business School) and La Toya Quamina (University of Westminster) note that cause-related efforts of companies are often promoted via advertising campaigns appealing to consumers’ guilt emotion.

“A key question is how consumers respond to guilt-arousing messages in cause-related advertising. Crucially, what level of guilt appeal intensity is most effective in cause marketing campaigns?” they ask.

Their article, Tackling global challenges through cause-related marketing: How brands should promote their support to social causes, supplies some answers based on their own research.

This has shown that the intensity level of guilt appeals in cause marketing impacts consumer perceptions and behavioural intentions.

“Compared to high intensity appeals, low intensity ones are more effective at creating positive corporate image perceptions and at encouraging purchase intentions,” they report – and this holds good for brands operating across the different sectors they considered (clothing, technology and food).

They recommend “extensive pre-testing of advertising copy” with a particular focus on the intensity of guilt appeals.

At the same time, brands need to be more than just well-intentioned. Consumers can be a cynical bunch and any brand choosing this route should be able to demonstrate genuine motivations for its interest in societal welfare.

“Perceptions of ulterior motives … adversely affect the brand image and consumers’ propensity to purchase the brand,” the authors advise.

A related issue is the compatibility of the advertising brand and the social cause being supported.

“Our research shows that perceptions of the brand as being ill-intentioned in its societal commitment and driven by ulterior motives are widespread among consumers evaluating cause marketing campaigns of technology and clothing brands,” the academics report.

Interestingly, however, this effect was not observed with similar campaigns from food brands.

Finally, the authors urge advertisers to be realistic about the outcomes they are seeking to achieve. These usually include enhanced consumer identification with the company and/or the brand, they note, but add that this is unlikely if advertising messages include guilt appeals of high intensity.

Such appeals “do not seem to address consumers’ self-definitional needs, but rather prevent consumers from identifying themselves with the brand”, they conclude.

This article first appeared in

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