The recent decades have seen the arising of public concerns due to the impacts of business operations on the environment and society [1
]. As for the agri-food sector, food companies are often referred as accountable for: (i) impacting negatively the environment and depleting natural resources and biodiversity [3
]; (ii) affecting society and communities in which they operate as well as people’ health and life [7
]; (iii) applying unfair business practices, exerting a considerable bargaining power on the actors involved in the supply chain [8
In line with these concerns, at the beginning of the 21st century, the European Commission publishing the Green Paper (2001) [11
] on corporate social responsibility (CSR) opens the debate on the growing role played by companies. Specifically, it outlined new perspectives for companies in which, to promote a more sustainable economic growth, they have to go beyond the mere economic sphere by embracing social and ethical concerns. The European Commission (2011) [12
] (p. 6), indeed, defines corporate social responsibility as the voluntary implementation of “…process to integrate social, environmental, ethical, human rights and consumer concerns into their business operations and core strategy in close collaboration with their stakeholders.” Accordingly, all company’s stakeholders should commit to undertake conscious and responsible behaviours [13
]. Likewise, the current academic debate points out the need to strengthen the relation between all actors involved in the supply chain (e.g., companies, suppliers, consumers) by sharing common values [14
]. Further, scholars have emphasized the importance of sharing both the benefits of corporate social responsibility and the resulting costs [16
]. Thus, to ensue wider adoption of socially responsible practices all actors involved in the supply chain have to do their part. For instance, companies have to adopt more sustainable production process, respectful of the environment and people involved, while consumers have to reward companies CSR initiatives purchasing their products and recognizing a premium price [13
Cause related marketing (CRM) campaigns meet companies and consumers’ duties. CRM identifies campaigns in which companies engage in social and ethical initiatives donating a portion of their income to a specific cause in response to consumer purchase [19
]. CRM assumes the participation of both actors of the economic system: companies that have to implement social and ethical initiatives, consumers have to purchase products associated to these initiatives. They are carried out, often along with other organizations (e.g., charities), on a specific product and for a limited period of time [21
Literature widely acknowledges the effects of corporate social responsibility and cause related marketing on both companies and consumers. CSR affects positively the level of satisfaction and retention of company’s employees [22
]. It also enhances company reputation [24
] leading tangible results in terms of brands and products [28
]. The response of consumer to CSR is also positive [31
]. Indeed, they result more loyal and satisfied [34
]. However, the relationship between companies’ involvement in CSR and consumers’ loyalty is largely unexplored [38
], as well as, it is still unclear whether consumers are willing to switch their favourite brand to another supporting CSR initiatives.
Since CRM is a tool to give voice to company involvement in corporate social responsibility, it further strengthens the CSR benefits highlighted. Previous studies, in fact, uncovered the role of CRM in bolster brand equity and the relationships with internal and external stakeholders [40
]. However, while on one hand CRM support company social and ethical conduct, on the other it can arise consumers’ scepticism towards the motives underlying its CSR initiatives [41
]. Trust in corporate donations and CRM may result central in lessen consumers’ scepticism [42
The current paper adds to the literature by focusing on the role of cause related marketing in addressing consumers’ purchasing decisions. More specifically, it investigates four different CRM campaigns and the effect of trust in CRM, brand loyalty, environmental and social concerns in prompting young consumers (i.e., Millennials) to switch a product of their favourite brand to another with similar characteristics but supporting a specific CSR initiative. The study assessed the role of trust in CRM and loyalty towards the brand as mediating variables. The product considered in the study was a chocolate snack, while the CSR initiatives investigated covered the social, environmental and community dimension. Further, the latter (i.e., community) was distinguished, on the basis of the proximity, in local and non-local.
The study aims are three folds: (i) to explore Millennials response to corporate social responsibility and cause related marketing; (ii) to assess the role of trust in CRM in affecting Millennials’ willingness to support CSR initiatives; (iii) to uncover the influence of CSR in prompting consumers to switch their favourite brand.
The next section outlines the relevant literature on cause related marketing and consumers, while data collection, questionnaire structure and statistical analysis are outlined in the “research methodology” section. Then, the study findings are presented and fully discussed in the third section of the manuscript (i.e., “results and discussions”). The last section of the paper draws the conclusions and implications of the study.
2. Literature Review
In a socio-economic and cultural context characterized by an ever-growing attention to environmental issues, the scope of corporate responsibilities has widened and, thence, the boundaries of companies’ accountability. Nowadays, society expects from companies not only performance but also ethical and sustainable conduct [17
]. In light of the new social demands, companies, especially in the food sector, have started to adopt practices aimed at satisfying these unprecedented requests and reviewing the entire corporate strategy in favour of a new managerial philosophy. Part of this context is cause related marketing, a marketing operation that aims to integrate business objectives and solidarity objectives, through a partnership, validated by a formal agreement, between a for profit organization and a non-profit organization. CRM represents, therefore, a marketing and communication strategy that companies adopt to show their direct involvement in social policies but, at the same time, to improve the corporate image, differentiate the products marketed and, hence, increase profits. It establishes a win-win relationship which benefits both the sponsoring company and the non-profit organization. In fact, on the one hand, the company improves its competitive and economic results in the short, medium or long term, as the goods produced and/or the services provided acquire a greater value for citizens-consumers, who are increasingly sensitive to ethical and social values; on the other hand, non-profit organizations receive support for the pursuit of their institutional goals. The for profit and non-profit world meet and integrate precisely to respond to the immaterial needs of the citizen-consumers who increasingly make their purchase choices on the basis of ethical evaluations. Today, the value of a brand or a company is actually the synthesis of a set of new factors, among which ethics, social commitment and attention to the environment.
The growth of the interest of the business towards CRM is reflected in the studies dedicated to this theme during the last twenty years. The literature identifies two main streams of research in the debate on CRM. The first is focused on the definition, conceptualization and specification of the CRM domain [41
]. The second investigates consumer behaviour towards CRM [19
]. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that, despite the growing interest in the theoretical debate, the causal relationships between consumption behaviours and CRM are still not fully explored, since the studies are mainly of a theoretical-descriptive nature.
In sum, the issue of CRM has been analysed in the literature considering a series of different factors or variables that should be considered by companies in order to maximize the benefits deriving from the internalization of such practices in business strategies. Particular importance was given to the analysis of the factors that influence the attitudes of consumers towards cause related marketing. A recent study reveals that the perception of CRM depends on various factors such as gender, age, living area, education and economic condition of the citizen-consumers but also on their system of values and culture, as well as on their degree of trust in the company [53
]. The study shows that, in general, consumers have a positive attitude towards CRM programs and that this strategy is particularly followed in the food and baby food sector, which have still inspired few contributions in the literature. Other studies also support the thesis that the attitudes of consumers towards CRM are influenced by socio-demographic characteristics, while the sensitivity of the citizen-consumer to interpersonal issues influences the importance attributed to ethical-social values and, therefore, to CRM practices [54
]. In this context, the gender differences become quite significant. Gender, being a male or a female, can potentially influence consumers’ decision to buy products related to a social cause. Studies carried out by Ross [55
], Nelson and Vilela [56
] show that men and women differ in behaviour, values and attitudes. Considering their response to CRM campaigns is indeed interesting to examine their different “prosocial” behaviour, defined as “voluntary behaviour that is carried out to benefit another without anticipation of external rewards and is performed under two circumstances: the behaviour is done for its own end and the behaviour is done as an act of restitution” [57
]. In the context of CRM, empathy plays a fundamental role in pro-social behaviour. Considering the different empathic attitudes, in fact, many studies have shown that women have stronger empathic sensations than men and tend [58
], therefore, to respond more positively to CRM campaigns.
Nevertheless, several contributions have also identified how the Generation Y is the one most likely to support CRM campaigns [59
]. Generation Y, (i.e., also known as Millennial Generation, are those born between 1977 and 1999) [61
] is of particular interest for marketers for its significant purchasing power [60
] and because it expresses socially responsible behaviour with respect to previous generations [62
]. Cui et al. [60
] show that members of Generation Y are generally more optimistic, socially engaged and present a civic awareness that extends into their daily activities. Baby Boomers generation (i.e., those born between 1946 and 1964) is also optimistic and respectful towards authority [63
], while Generation X (i.e., those born between 1965 and 1976) results to be more pessimistic, individualist and sceptical about authority [64
]. Further, the three generation cohorts differ in terms of loyalty towards brands and organizations. Specifically, Millennials and the Generation X are less loyal than the Baby Boomers generation [65
]. Millennials are the so-called children of Internet who are always willing to be informed about news and new developments [66
]. Their level of commitment to support humanitarian causes and their willingness to choose brands that support social causes mean that this generation is the most important target for cause related marketing campaigns. University-age consumers of the Generation Y have a generally positive attitude towards CRM campaigns and are engaged in a new “ethical consumerism” [67
]. Therefore, Millennials should be treated as a kind of sub-market that differ in their levels of awareness of ethical issues and are willing to engage in ethical purchases at different levels. Since Millennials represent the leaders, influencers and buyers of the near future, the studies conducted in this field are particularly important as they can provide food practitioners and decision makers with useful information for the definition of targeted policies.
This is relevant also because CRM is interpreted today as a strategic tool to achieve objectives such as increasing sales and market share, improving corporate reputation and brand loyalty. With regard to the latter aspect, Brink et al. [68
] confirmed that CRM, especially long-term CRM, can increase consumer loyalty to the brand. In particular, the authors show that CRM campaigns do not have an impact on brand loyalty, on the part of the consumer, if the campaign is linked to a product for which the consumer already shows a high level of involvement. In contrast, long-term CRM campaigns influence consumer loyalty to the brand for low-involvement products. But CRM is also an important communication tool for building/improving a company’s reputation [69
]. The results of CRM activities are, in fact, closely linked to the communication strategies used in the campaigns to promote social initiatives supported by the company or the brand. Therefore, we must also consider all the communication and information tools that, at the time of purchase, attract attention and promote the product, such as packaging, information brochures and advertising. Marketing communication can, through a careful choice of methods, mediate and guide the consumer’s decision to purchase especially when there are no strong personal preferences towards a specific brand. The results of the studies conducted by Baghi [70
] show that citizens-consumers prefer to purchase socially responsible products that explain the cause of the donation in a clear, tangible and emotionally engaging way because the perception of corporate credibility also changes in relation to the methods used to describe the charity initiatives. One of the fundamental elements for the success of these operations is the perception of reliability that consumers have towards the company’s commitment [71
]. In general, having a pro-social agenda means having a powerful marketing tool that can build and shape the reputation of a company and help create a competitive advantage. The expected change in the image of a company following CRM campaigns seems to depend largely on both the way in which citizens-consumers, in particular Millennials, who are significantly sensitive to such practices, perceive the reasons for the involvement of a company in related programs and on the amount of help provided to the cause through the involvement of a company [41
4. Results and Discussions
The sample is roughly equally distributed among gender (52% of the sample are females) (Table 2
), the average age is 22 years (±3.30) whereof 52 percent stated to be aware or have heard about CSR. 73 percent of respondents perceive to have an average family income, while with regard to the living area, the majority of respondents (57% of the sample) live in urban area. Based on the frequency of personal purchase, 33% of Millennials interviewed stated to purchase “often” and “always” chocolate snack by their own, falling into the “supercore” group. As for the CSR dimensions investigated (i.e., environmental, social, local community, no-local community) consumers showed, on average, similar preferences for the environmental and local community dimension (7.99, ±2.45; 7.98, ±2.37 respectively), followed by the no-local community (7.78, ±2.55) and the social dimension (7.14, ±2.76).
The set of linear coefficients—also known as factor loadings—are shown in the first four columns of the following table (Table 3
), while the last one summarizes the percentage of variance for the variable not explained by the common factors (uniqueness). Items responses are aggregated in four main factors, namely environmental concern, social concern, brand loyalty and trust. They express consumers’ environmental and social concerns as well as their trust in CRM and brand loyalty.
In our analysis, environmental concern is characterized by eight items embracing consumers’ concern toward environmental issues. A consumer with a high score in this domain, generally, is mainly worried about recycling and the energy consumption, as showed by the statements “Packaging that is not recyclable” (0.81) and “The amount of energy used when transporting food products” (0.79). The second extracted factor, instead, expresses consumers’ social concern through six items. The two items mostly affecting this factor are “Starvation and malnutrition in the world population” (0.78) and “The use of child labour in food production” (0.77). Brand loyalty (i.e., third factor) is synthetized by four items, capturing consumers’ loyalty for their favourite brand of chocolate snack. This factor is in accordance with the findings of Hartmann and co-authors (2015). High scores in this domain support the statements “I intend to buy products from my favourite chocolate brand in the future” (0.87) and “The chocolate snack of my favourite brand is always my first choice” (0.86). Lastly, the fourth factor, trust in CRM campaigns, has three items in which the statement “I perceive CRM to be meaningful” (0.82) is the highly scored.
reports the estimates resulting from the four Tobit regressions. The four models summarize the direction of the statistical associations between consumers’ willingness to switch a chocolate snack of their favourite brand and, brand loyalty, trust in CRM campaigns, concerns about sustainability issues.
The empirical results show that Millennials’ willingness to switch the chocolate snack of their favourite brand to another with similar characteristics but supporting a specific CSR initiative is related to trust in CRM, brand loyalty and environmental concern. More deeply, the factor scores assigned to trust in cause related marketing campaigns, brand loyalty and environmental concern present the same sign for all CSR dimensions investigated. Accordingly, the model did not identify a specific CSR dimension for which young consumers are more willing to switch their chocolate snack of their favourite brand. This finding is in contrast with previous studies in which consumers exhibit a clear preference for specific CSR initiatives [16
However, while trust in CRM and environmental concern positively affect consumers’ willingness to support all CSR dimensions investigated, brand loyalty has a negative effect on consumer decision making. Prior studies support this finding revealing that trust in cause-related marketing campaigns is crucial for encouraging company’s CSR initiatives. Indeed, if consumers do not trust company’s commitment in CRM, they will react negatively to their CSR initiatives [42
]. Further, when company reputation is questioned, consumers may become sceptical to cause-related marketing campaigns [78
]. The latter are deemed more reliable when companies state the precise amount of money they donate to the cause [80
]. Unlike previous findings in which environmental concern is positively related to purchase environmentally friendly products [81
], the study results uncovered that the environmental concern is a driver for supporting pro-environmental, social and community (both for local and no-local communities) initiatives. The reason may rely on Millennials’ concern about the environment and their consequences on society (e.g., food insecurity, lower or non-stable income, human health) [84
The negative effect of brand loyalty on cause related marketing campaigns reveals a considerable loyalty of interviewed toward their favourite brand. Thus, none of the CSR dimensions investigated is able to prompt Millennials to switch the chocolate snack of their favourite brand to another supported by CRM campaigns. This result is in accordance with previous findings [56
]. Specifically, CRM campaigns seem to affect non-brand loyal consumers in their purchase intentions rather than the loyal ones [56
]. However, literature highlight that companies’ involvement in corporate social responsibility and cause related marketing, strengthen their relationship with consumers in terms of brand loyalty [41
The study findings also showed that the social concerns factor positively affect initiatives in favour of no-local communities. In other words, young consumers more sensitive to social issues such as social justice, quality of life, mutual respect, fair salaries and prices are more incline to support CRM campaigns in no-local communities. This finding may be related to the product investigated in the study (i.e., chocolate snack). Indeed, the cultivation of cocoa—that is one of the main ingredients of chocolate snack—is widespread in developing countries where most often poor working conditions and child labour are reported [88
]. To this extend, since unsustainable working conditions and child labour are among the main challenges of cocoa supply chain [89
], consumers may feel more involved in arising their life condition by supporting specific CSR initiatives.
As for the considered socio-demographic characteristics, consistency was observed for gender, living area and family income. Researchers have posed great attention about the effect of socio-demographics characteristics (e.g., gender, family income and living area) on consumers’ attitudes toward CRM campaigns [54
The study revealed that among interviewed, females are more willing to support CSR initiatives than males. This result is in contrast with the study of Kropp and colleagues [47
] that does not underline any significant effect. Conversely, the study findings are in line with previous researches in which females tend to be more likely to support CRM campaigns than males [55
]. Males unwillingness may be due to their scepticism about company donations [55
]. Further, the results showed the willingness of females to support pro-environmental activities and no-local communities. It is widely acknowledged that female consumers care more about social and environmental issues than males [90
] and they are more prone to help people in need [96
]. As a result, females interviewed may feel the need to support people living in no-local communities that are also those involved in the cacao supply chain.
Interviewed living in the urban area are more willing to support social and community CSR initiatives than environmental ones. Unlike this result, scholars have found that living in an urban area significantly increase the probability of buying environmentally sustainable products such as organic food [97
]. However, Öberseder and Schlegelmilch [98
] argue that personal concern is a core driver for buying CSR products. Lerro and colleagues [75
] identified that young consumers are more concerned about social and community issues than the environmental ones. Accordingly, Millennials interviewed living in urban area may have a stronger sense of community neglecting the environmental concerns.
Family income level has a significant effect on the social CSR dimension. Results revealed that interviewed consumers living in a family with a monthly income above the average are less willing to support social CSR initiatives. This result is in contrast with previous literature in which high family income increases the likelihood of buying products sponsored by CRM campaigns [54
]. However, there is the need of further investigation to confirm the study result.
The paper focused on the role of cause related marketing in addressing consumers’ purchasing decisions. It investigated four different CRM campaigns (i.e., environmental, social, local community and no-local community) and the effect of trust in CRM, brand loyalty, environmental and social concerns in prompting young consumers (i.e., Millennials) to switch a chocolate snack of their favourite brand to another with similar characteristics but supporting a specific CSR initiative.
The study findings showed that consumers’ willingness to switch the product of their favourite brand is similar for all the CSR dimensions investigated. Accordingly, the results uncovered a general preference towards CSR. Moreover, trust in CRM, brand loyalty, environmental and social concerns have an effect on Millennials’ willingness to switch the chocolate snack of their favourite brand. While trust in CRM campaigns and environmental concern positively influence consumers’ willingness to support all CSR dimensions, brand loyalty, instead, may result a constraint. Lastly, social concern is a driver for supporting the no-local community dimension of CSR. The research also revealed that: (i) females are willing to support pro-environmental activities and no-local communities; (ii) people living in urban area are more prone towards social issues than the environmental one; (iii) consumers with a monthly family income above the average are less willing to support the social dimension of CSR.
Even though findings may not be generalized, the current study offers several implications for business managers on how to properly execute cause related marketing and encourage the adoption of CSR. Firstly, it unveiled that Millennials consumers are not disinterested to CSR. The latter is noteworthy for companies that are devoting massive resources to CSR initiatives as well as for the critical role this population segment is going to have in the future. As for the trust in CRM, it is crucial to pursue successfully CRM campaigns. Indeed, the study highlighted that without trust, consumers are not willing to engage an active behaviour, namely support CSR initiatives. Accordingly, business managers should strengthen consumers’ trust, increasing transparency in their social and environmental initiatives. Brand loyalty results also provide useful insights. Consumers, in fact, are not willing to switch their favourite brand for another sponsoring CSR initiatives. The resulting implications are twofold: (i) brand is stronger than CSR in drawing consumers’ interest; (ii) CSR may be a decisive characteristic when no brand loyal consumers make their purchasing decisions. Lastly, the study gives suggestions for company CSR communication as well. Indeed, the findings uncovered either that consumers more concerned about the environment or females are more prone to support specific initiatives. As a consequence, marketers may stress, in their communication, companies’ efforts for the environment or, focus their product offer to a female target.
Although the study offers several implications, there are also some core limitations that may be addressed in future research. Since the questionnaire was conveyed through different messaging and communication platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, email), the study may suffer of sample bias also known as auto selection bias. Future studies may extend the number of platforms used for conveying the questionnaire or carry out face-to-face interview. Further, the study should be widened to other segment of population to compare the response of different generation cohorts to CRM and CSR initiatives. In addition, even though the pilot test did not identify any misinterpretation of the questions, some semantic scale implemented in the study may result deceptive for participants. Thus, a useful recommendation is to use more distinguishable scale points. Finally, respondents’ behaviour may be overly influenced by the many issues affecting the cocoa production process (i.e., the main ingredient of chocolate snack). Accordingly, scholars should investigate other food products to confirm the study results.