'Rational' Consumer Considerations and the 'Halo Effect' - Corporate Social Responsibility and Consumers' Attributions and Brand Evaluations

A growing body of research on corporate social resonsibility (CSR) leads to two interesting conclusions. First, CSR seems to play a role in the brand and product evaluations made by consumers over and above strictly "rational" considerations, such as product attributes. Second, CSR issues have a spillover, so-called "halo effect" on otherwise unrelated consumer considerations, such as judging new products.

by Jill Klein, Niraj Dawar
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

However, as Associate Professor of Marketing Jill Klein and Professor Niraj Dawar of the University of Western Ontario have discovered, this halo effect may extend beyond such matters as seemingly straightforward as objective product scrutiny, into more non-routine judgements and attributions.

A growing body of research on Corporate Social Resonsibility (CSR) leads to two interesting conclusions. First, CSR seems to play a role in the brand and product evaluations made by cosumers over and above strictly "rational" considerations, such as product attributes. Second, CSR issues have a spillover, so-called "halo effect" on otherwise unrelated consumer considerations, such as judging new products.

However, as Associate Professor of Marketing Jill Klein and Prof. Niraj Dawar of the University of Western Ontario have discovered, this halo effect may extend beyond such matters as seemingly straightforward as objective product scrutiny, into more non-routine judgements and attributions.

In essence, the halo effect is the "bias" by which one assessment influences a judgement on another attribute of a given product, (e.g., disliking the design or colour of a product leading to negative feelings about its reliability). The authors set out to examine their belief that a CSR halo effect may influence consumer judgements in rarely studied, non-routine settings. In doing so, they intended to gain a better understanding of this potentially broader scope of CSR in common consumer behaviour. They also wish to map the halo effect's impact on consumer attributions of blame in a product-harm crisis scenario.

Klein and Dawar conducted two experiments that employed manipulations of prior CSR on a sample of consumers. In the first study, subjects were provided with information about a real and well-known oil company. The design involved three separate between-subject conditions: positive CSR, negative CSR, and a control condition in which no CSR-related details were given. Accordingly, three different versions of a questionnaire were provided. The second study provided boundary conditions for the results of the prior study.

The authors' findings revealed a more complex role being played by CSR considerations than was previously appreciated. Results from the first study supported their premise that CSR affects consumers' tendencies to affix blame in product-harm crises. Each of the three attribution dimensions contributed markedly to test subjects' perceptions of culpability.

Moreover, CSR is revealed to act as a sort of "insurance policy". Companies with good CSR reputations during product-harm crises tend to deflect blame away from themselves. Quite the reverse is often true when CSR reputations are poor. The findings also suggest that CSR associations may have quite a significant impact when consumers rely on corporate associations to inform their judgements. Therefore, for reasons the authors clarify, the mediating role of attributions is important in such circumstances.

Morover, Klein and Nawar's findings indicate that, in addition to the effects of CSR on company performance through improved consumer brand evaluations and greater likelihood of purchase in routine consumer behaviour situations, CSR may also have a "dormant effect. This effect may be activated in circumstances in which consumers choose to rely on corporate associations to inform their personal judgements. Therefore, the authors' research indicates that even if positive CSR associations do not immediately boost a firm's profitability, they may still be instrumental in reducing the risk of damage to brand evaluations in an event such as a product-harm crisis.

International Journal of Research in Marketing, September 2004

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