The increasingly visible consequences of climate change, coupled with greater expectations around societal issues, have pushed corporate social responsibility (CSR) into the spotlight for both organizations and consumers. While many companies have committed to reducing their impact, others have adopted greenwashing techniques which, when subsequently uncovered, fuel consumer skepticism about environmental advertising claims.
Skepticism is a specific aspect of consumer behavior and Robert Mai, Professor of Marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, has demonstrated the significant influence of contextual environmental factors on consumer responses in domains as diverse as sustainability, food consumption, health and digital marketing. Mai has drawn on this expertise to explore the effect of ambient temperature on CSR skepticism. The findings of the study, Too Cold to be Skeptical: How Ambient Temperature Moderates the Effects of CSR Communication, were published this year in the scientific journal Ecological Economics.
Making new connections
"Contextual factors are hugely important and yet they are very much understudied with respect to CSR communication," explains Mai. "We filled this gap in the literature by connecting two different fields of research: the influence of ambient temperature on human behavior and CSR skepticism." Knowing that the human body has a greater tolerance for cold than for heat, the researchers hypothesized that CSR communication is more likely to trigger consumer skepticism when the ambient temperature is high.
A laboratory experiment was therefore designed and participants were randomly assigned to one of six conditions: ambient temperature that was either warm, moderate or cool and CSR communication that was motivated by either economic or ecological reasons. In addition to these controlled variables, a number of other factors were considered in order to minimize the effects of confounding, including humidity, hunger, comfort, trust in intuition, cognitive ability, gender, age, education, income, the time of the day and the day of the week. "It was a challenging task!" admits Mai. "We went as far as providing each participant with the same standardized t-shirt to wear and even measured forehead temperature."
Interesting results… with a surprise
The data gathered enabled the interaction effect between ambient temperature and CSR communication to be proved. The research also demonstrated that in warm ambient temperatures, a higher degree of skepticism is induced by ecological motives compared to economic motives. An unexpected result, however, was the discovery of a very clear gender difference with temperature-induced skepticism emerging primarily for men. Though further research is necessary to fully understand the difference, an initial exploration of the data showed a gender-specific response to increasing ambient temperatures: while men felt less comfortable, women, on the other hand, felt more comfortable.
The implications for managers and society
The research carried out not only demonstrated that temperature can influence CSR skepticism but also the negative spillover effect that it can have on the product or company. "Brand attitude may be considered to be relatively stable, but this study has shown that even very subtle contextual factors can influence how CSR communication is interpreted and that ultimately affects the consumer's perception of the brand," explains Mai. The effects are potentially even further wide-ranging as damage to the company image could ultimately deter green purchases and thus limit the market for green products. The advice for managers is to carefully consider seasonal and local temperatures when rolling out their CSR communication and in the absence of temperature knowledge or control, to limit CSR advertising to retail stores where temperature regulation is possible.
The broader challenge
Alternative advice is to encourage companies to provide compelling evidence that demonstrates the truthfulness of their CSR claims. Mai admits, however, that "the COVID crisis has illustrated that communicating facts and evidence is not always enough to convince a segment of the population with high levels of skepticism and belief in conspiracy theories. Consequently, we are now carrying out research into fake news which is an extremely challenging area for companies to address."