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The Gift of Goodness: How to Motivate Socially Responsible Gift Giving

With respect to corporate social responsibility, CSR Evangelists, Preachers, Introverts and Preachers make personal and gift-giving decisions differently.

Gifts help drive the economy: they account for more than $1 out of every $10 spent at retail stores. What influences whether consumers buy socially responsible gifts? Interest exists: a 2012 report showed that more than two thirds of consumers want charitable and social causes incorporated into seasonal gift giving. Websites such as Shop with Meaning, which highlight the work of socially responsible firms, are increasingly popular.

New research that I conducted with Julie Tinson and John Peloza identifies key customer groups—and how companies should treat each type. Through in-depth interviews with a diverse set of consumers, we found four segments of customers, each taking a different approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) in both personal consumption and gift-giving decisions. Here, we describe each type and the implications for companies.

From Evangelists to Resistors: Four Types of CSR Consumers

CSR Evangelists

These consumers view CSR activities positively and consistently make socially responsible purchases for themselves and others. They told us that CSR is a win-win proposition and that socially responsible gifts are of higher quality. Evangelists seek to increase awareness of CSR and ethical attributes through their gift purchases.

Evangelists are potential ambassadors whom firms should target to generate greater CSR awareness among consumers generally. Evangelists are especially powerful ambassadors because their gift giving addresses a wide range of occasions (e.g. baby showers) and can thus generate awareness amongst many groups. Evangelists are also great candidates to include in early product and promotion testing for holiday campaigns that include CSR-related messaging.

CSR Preachers

Preachers behave inconsistently across personal and gift purchases. They buy socially responsible gifts but don’t consider CSR when buying items for themselves. Preachers are motivated by “impression management”: they want gift recipients to see them positively. Previous research shows that impression management often leads consumers to engage in visible socially responsible behaviours, such as purchasing green products or donating to charities.

Preachers actually reverse the common pattern of consumers expressing positive attitudes towards CSR-related purchases but not actually making the purchases. Preachers don’t view CSR positively—but do buy CSR-related products as gifts. Preachers recognize that they’re being inconsistent; they explain socially responsible gift giving as a way to recognize recipients’ preferences and reduce guilt over personal purchases.

When working with “Preachers,” emphasizing the gift recipient in promotional campaigns can broaden the market for socially responsible goods. For example, in cause-related marketing campaigns, firms can highlight the value that socially responsible gifts offer to recipients, for example, friends and family members who appreciate such goods.

CSR Introverts

Introverts reverse the behavior of the Preachers. They buy socially responsible products and services for themselves—but not as gifts.

Do Introverts not care about “impression management,” being seen positively by the recipient? They do care, but they believe that socially responsible gifts actually make a poor impression. They worry that gifts will be perceived as lower quality if they are made of recycled material, for example.

To encourage Introverts to give socially-responsible gifts, firms will need to confirm and communicate goods’ quality.

CSR Resistors

Resistors do not consider social responsibility in personal consumption or gift giving decisions. They aren’t ideologically opposed to CSR. Rather, they identify practical obstacles: lack of information to help them distinguish between “good” and “bad” companies, and concern over the higher price of socially responsible items.

Resistors tend to ignore more conventional CSR advertisements. Firms can reach “CSR Resistors” by partnering with the CSR Evangelists. Evangelists have a broad reach, and through word-of-mouth and gifts can affect others.

Applying—and Expanding—the Research

Firms can use the strategies suggested in complementary ways, even if they don’t know what precise segment their consumers fall into. They can:

  • enlist those committed to socially responsible purchases as ambassadors (to make the best use of Evangelists, and reach Resistors)

  • highlight the value socially responsible gifts have for recipients (to reach Preachers)

  • emphasize product quality (to reach Introverts)These findings are based on interviews with 30 consumers in North American cities, who varied by age, employment and income level. Our future research will identify the percentages of each segment in the general population. We’ll characterize Evangelists, Preachers, Introverts, and Resistors by demographics, values and lifestyles.

We also plan to examine other key factors influencing the success of CSR activities with consumers, such as the fit between a company and a cause, to clarify exactly how firms should position their socially responsible gift offerings—and help “give the gift of goodness.”

About the Author

Dr. Todd Green is an assistant professor in the Marketing, International Business and Strategy department at the Goodman School of Business at Brock University. His work has been published in Journal of Advertising, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Consumer Behaviour and Long Range Planning. In his previous role as a lecturer in Marketing at the University of Stirling, Scotland, he introduced a new course in Marketing Ethics at University of Stirling that will be a core course for all marketing students.

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