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Cognitive Dissonance in Luxury Brand CSR

Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshotWords by Akhila Vijayaraghavan
Leadership & Transparency

A forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research study claims that when brands exhibit inconsistencies, consumers find it hard to swallow proclamations of social responsibility. According to coauthor Carlos Torelli, "Marketers use messages of  CSR under the expectation that consumers reward brands with a favorable CSR image." A McKinsey global survey stated that 76 % of executives said CSR efforts add to long-term shareholder value.

Brand Characteristic Suggests CSR Image

Torelli, who is 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. They conducted four experiments and they tested the concepts or characteristics brands evoke against messages of CSR. They then measured their effects on participants' brand evaluations and ability to process information. The study revealed that CSR messages from brands associated with excitement and openness like Apple or tradition and conservation like Aunt Jemima were readily understood. On the other hand, when brands that suggest luxury, power or status for example, Rolex, talk about their CSR efforts, it wasn't well-received.

Torelli explains: "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. 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 occurs rather spontaneously without any conscious deliberation on the merits of the CSR argument."

However it is naive to think that luxury brands do not indulge in CSR activities. For one thing, they would be missing out on a huge market share if they did not promote their CSR initiatives. Optimists might say they want to be truly altruistic.

Torelli says that prestige brands can avoid pitfalls by using phrases in their messages like "although what you are about to read might seem contradictory," to prompt effective consumer reflection about the brand. Alternatively he suggests the use of a sub-brand. According to him, the introduction of a CSR image through a sub-brand will encourage anticipating the inconsistent CSR action and to shield the mother brand from negative effects.

Paris Hilton Vs. Angelina Jolie

Golden Gate University marketing professor Michal Ann Strahilevitz says that all CSR messages must be consistent. It is the case of Paris Hilton versus Angelina Jolie.  In her first post-jail interview with Larry King, Paris stated that she was done being "cute" and wanted to devote time towards philanthropic work and also that she has become a practicing Roman Catholic. Since then however, she has proceeded to work on a music album and debuted a reality program and has supposedly converted to Islam! As a consequence, nobody really knows who she is and this has reflected in the number of viewers her new program has attracted (400,000 viewers, or 3% of her The Simple Life audience).

Contrasting this with Angelina Jolie who Strahilevitz says has persisted with her image - a decade ago she was not taken seriously when she began helping people, presumably because it conflicted with her sexy, reckless image. Since then Jolie has persisted with philanthropy and has been the UN Goodwill Ambassador and visited several conflict areas and campaigned for human rights among other efforts. As a result, her brand has revamped over time and perhaps even improved.

Is CSR branding really as simple as Hilton Vs. Jolie? Perhaps not, but there are definite parallels that can be drawn from this example.

IMage Source: Hans Villarica, The Atlantic 

Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshotAkhila Vijayaraghavan

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net

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