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To Win Customers, Ensure Your CSR Fits Your Image

The right corporate social responsibility initiatives can improve your brand equity, while inappropriate or ill-timed CSR tactics can hurt you.

What is the influence on consumers of the fit, motivation and timing of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives? The authors of this study used familiar companies, including The Home Depot and Toys “R” Us, to analyze consumers’ thoughts and feelings after reading about a firms’ CSR initiatives. When consumers viewed CSR as a poor fit or profit-motivated, their attitudes and purchase intentions were low. But when CSR initiatives were perceived as being proactive, consumers were more likely to want to buy from the company.

Factors that Influence Consumers

Numerous factors can influence whether consumers reward firms for their CSR. In this study, the authors provided participants with different information about well-known companies and their social initiatives, and then evaluated consumers’ reactions. The authors varied the firm’s motivation (profit or social good), the timing of initiatives (proactive or reactive), and the fit with the firm’s product, brand and market (high or low).


  • CSR improved consumers’ view of firms most when CSR was seen as a good fit and when consumers thought a firm’s initiatives were socially motivated.

  • Consumers were less interested in purchasing from firms they viewed as having low-fit or profit-motivated CSR; the highest purchase intentions were generated by high-fit initiatives they viewed as socially motivated.

  • When consumers thought firms undertook CSR in response to a negative event, those firms were often blamed for the event itself. For example, when Ford initiated a child-seat safety campaign after 14 children were injured in Ford Windstar vans that did not have properly installed child seats, Ford was seen by consumers as somewhat responsible for the improper installation.

Implications for Managers

  • Undertake social initiatives that are consistent with your image. The right CSR initiatives can improve your brand equity.

  • Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons can still hurt your company. CSR that isn’t consistent with the company and its brands diminishes consumers’ perceptions of credibility, their overall attitude, and their intent to buy.

  • Undertaking CSR in response to negative events won’t win points with consumers. Consumers will question your company’s motives and actions, and may even assign blame.

Implications for Researchers

Future research should examine firm-specific factors and test consumer behaviour in marketplace settings to better evaluate the relationship between real initiatives and buying behaviour. Extending this research to other industries and initiatives (e.g., environmental programs) would also increase the generalizability of the study.


The authors conducted two studies—one examining reactions to fit and motivation behind social initiatives and another examining reactions to timing. In the first study, the authors paired two companies (The Home Depot and Revlon) with social initiatives (homelessness and domestic violence). The 108 participants read an article in which researchers varied fit, motivation, and timing of CSR: for example, “Home Depot hopes this and other new programs will boost sales” or “Home Depot hopes this and other programs will help those at risk.” In the second study, the authors used the Home Depot, Ford Motor Company, and Toys R Us, and the issues of homelessness, vehicle safety and missing children. The authors presented the firm’s initiatives as being either proactive or reactive.

Becker-Olsen, Karen L., Andrew Cudmore and Ronald Paul Hill. (2006) The Impact of perceived corporate social responsibility on consumer behavior. Journal of Business Research. Volume 59(1), p46-53.

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  • Pam Laughland

    Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

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