By: Elizabeth Minton-Assistant Professor of Marketing
We all have experienced it
We all have experienced it. You walk down the grocery store aisles with many food packages emblazoned with causes. Occasionally the non-profit is endorsing the product (such as in the case of Cheerios being supported as a heart healthy product by the American Heart Association). Oftentimes though, the cause is on the cause is on the package because the food company is donating a portion of proceeds to the cause.
Have you noticed?
Let me highlight some recent examples that may spark your thought of other examples you have seen on store shelves. KFC partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation in the “Buckets for a Cure” campaign where a portion of the sale of every bucket of fried chicken went to help with cancer research. Seems oxymoronic, right? Fried foods have been shown to cause cancer, yet the donation is trying to prevent cancer research? Another example – Coca Cola products donate a portion of proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. Yes, they have an indirect relationship of the polar bear being the iconic symbol for Coke, but how might such causes linked to the natural environment make a product appear healthier or more natural? Keebler cookies supports the American Red Cross. Yoplait yogurt and 5 hour energy support the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The list could go on and on. Hopefully by now you are thinking of recent examples you have seen on store shelves to add to this list. So how does this affect the consumer?
Recent research that is conditionally accepted at the Journal of Consumer Affairs along with Dr. T. Bettina Cornwell from the University of Oregon shows that such causes can have great effects on consumer decision making. First, causes that have some sort of health orientation (e.g., the Susan G. Komen Foundation) make consumers think the product is healthier. Every cause, regardless of whether or not it is health-oriented, makes consumers desire to purchase the food product more and have a higher overall attitude toward the product. Additionally, we looked at differences among consumers finding that consumers thought food products donating to a healthy cause were healthier regardless of their level of health interest, health knowledge, or BMI. This means that a cause’s influence on food product perceptions are pervasive across consumers.
The Scary Effects
This can have scary effects. Think back to the KFC and Susan G. Komen example. That Komen logo is making products appear healthier than they actually are. We can say that because we actually tested this situation by showing participants in our study a bucket of KFC chicken with and without the Komen logo. In the Komen logo condition, we told participants that a portion of proceeds of the bucket of chicken would be donation to the Komen Foundation. Participants universally said the chicken was healthier, had higher purchase intentions, and overall attitude toward the KFC bucket of chicken with the Komen logo even though the bucket of chicken was exactly the same as in the condition with no Komen logo.
Upon asking consumers why they thought the food package was healthier, many consumers mentioned that they thought the cause was endorsing the food product as healthy. In follow-up studies, we found that adding a disclaimer to the food package stating that the cause was not endorsing the food product as healthy led consumers to think food packages with and without a cause were of equal healthiness. In other words, the disclaimer led consumers to evaluate the food package more accurately.
Stop and Think
It is a ways off until such a disclaimer could be added to food packages, but the more important thing for now is for you as a consumer to stop and think when you see a cause on a product package. How might this be influencing your evaluations of the healthiness of the food package? How does it make you want to purchase the product more or have a higher overall attitude toward it?
Causes influence you. How do you think they influence you? Have you ever purchased a product just because it had a cause on it? Why? I am always on the lookout for more examples of causes partnering with food products, so if you have examples or pictures of examples, please reply to this post and let me know!