NEW YORK: Corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts that make specific claims, receive external coverage and win awards can have a greater impact on consumers, according to a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR).

Verena Gruber (HEC Montreal), Magdalena Kaliauer (GfK/Austria) and Bodo B. Schlegelmilch (WU Vienna and Sun Yat-sen University, China) based their paper on 20 in-depth interviews and a survey of 631 Austrian consumers.

“Past studies have shown that a closer link between a company’s core business and a given cause results in a stronger consumer engagement,” they argued in Improving the Effectiveness and Credibility of Corporate Social Responsibility Messaging: An Austrian Model Identifies Influential CSR Content and Communication Channels.

“But that consumer’s awareness of many specific CSR activities is very low. [Our research] thus investigated whether a good company/cause fit still is important to generate a positive reaction among consumers.”

Cautioning that “these effects potentially could be indirect in nature, when consumers infer a more favorable overall company image”, the authors made a number of useful discoveries.

“Consumers find specific information about the impact of CSR more credible than broad references. An ‘amount-of-CO2-saved’ attribution is preferable over a ‘protects-the-environment’ claim,” they reported.

The analysis further showed that awards were an especially credible communications channel, ahead of TV and newspaper coverage, labels, cooperation with non-governmental organisations, and a company’s own CSR reports.

“Among the five most credible communication channels,” the authors explained, “four are external to the company, indicating that consumers consider CSR communication disseminated through independent sources more credible.”

Building on this theme, they added: “Awards for CSR efforts have a stronger impact on consumers than messages delivered through social media and/or internal channels.”

Despite these insights, there is no hard and fast success formula, the scholars warned: “Consumers, as well as other stakeholders” – say, investors, suppliers, and business partners – “are prone to attitude–behavior inconsistencies.”

“Nevertheless, given the increasing pressure on companies to show their sustainability intent, reassuring consumers with knowledge about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ can provide them with valuable competitive advantages.”

Improving the Effectiveness and Credibility of Corporate Social Responsibility Messaging appears as part of a special “What We Know About Corporate Social Responsibility Messaging” section of JAR.

Sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff