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UW Marketing Professor Finds Charity Logos May Influence Perception of Food in Package

October 1, 2015
head portrait of woman
Elizabeth Minton

An organization's logo on a food product can trigger quick perceptions by consumers about an item's healthiness and influence their decision making, according to a University of Wyoming researcher.

That perception also may be seen as an endorsement that may not exist, say study co-authors Elizabeth Minton, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Management and Marketing, and T. Bettina Cornwell, the Edwin E. & June Woldt Cone Professor of Marketing at the University of Oregon.

The research, led by Minton as part of her doctoral dissertation, probed alliances of organizations through the placement of logos on mock food products.

“There are a myriad of examples of health-related charities partnering with products that are not the healthiest choices,” Minton says. “Look at KFC partnering with the Komen Foundation in the Buckets for a Cure Campaign several years back, or, more recently, the American Red Cross partnering with Keebler Cookies in a blood drive effort. Although, at first glance, these appear worthwhile efforts leading to donations to the nonprofits, these financial benefits may come at the cost of consumers misperceiving product attributes, such as how healthy the product really is.”

The findings, published online ahead of print in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, involved a pre-test followed by three experiments that added different levels of complexity.

The pre-test, with 291 undergraduate business students, laid the experimental foundation. It explored quickly formed associations participants made about the healthiness of two food products -- cookies and crackers --along with underlying values of three causes -- the American Heart Association (AHA), World Wildlife Fund and Goodwill.

The health cause related to food and generated health associations. Environmental and social causes, when paired with food products, generated no health associations.

In the first experiment, 109 undergraduate business students saw simple packages of cookies that displayed a cause logo and a name -- either Goodwill or the AHA -- along with information that a purchase would lead to a donation. Participants believed the cookies partnered with the AHA were a healthier choice than cookies with no cause or those partnered with Goodwill.

These findings, the researchers say, are alarming since consumer perceptions of the healthiness of a food changed with the cause logo on the package.

The second experiment, with 140 undergraduate business students, tested the idea that cause-related marketing increases consumer attitudes or intentions to purchase, in this case, crackers. The AHA logo persuaded the participants to choose the product for health reasons. The other two organizations’ logos also worked because the causes were deemed worthy, but they did not increase health perceptions.

The third study was done with 120 adults recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing system. It used a food-related but non-health charity cause -- Meals on Wheels -- as its focal point to probe if health perceptions, intentions or attitudes influence a decision to purchase crackers.

This scenario leveled the playing field related to amounts of information about a cause included on the packaging and, working with adults, allowed the researchers to adjust for higher levels of product and cause knowledge that older participants brought to the testing.

In the end, Minton and Cornwell found that the pairing of Meals on Wheels on the crackers’ packaging, with wording about the cause, slightly enhanced perceptions that crackers are a healthy choice. That connection, the research found, is based on quick judgments that may or may not assume an endorsement.

“Cause marketing can influence consumer food product evaluations when cause cues are integrated within food packaging,” Minton says. “Our findings build upon prior research that has shown that corporate social responsibility efforts generally influence food product evaluations.”

There are take-home messages for both consumers and marketers, Minton adds.

“Consumers, in particular, need to stop amongst the busy shopping experience and ask themselves why they are desiring a product,” she says. “It also would be an interesting exercise for consumers to open their kitchen cabinets and look at product packaging. What do you see on it? Are there causes? How do you think that influenced your purchase behavior? When you are in the store, distractions abound. So, the best time to assess your buying behavior may be at home.”

Minton says that marketers should spend time thinking about and testing how packaging cues, such as a cause logo, influence consumer perceptions.

“Perhaps such cues are misleading consumers and could be revised so as to more accurately inform consumers of product features,” Minton says.


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