Ethical marketing claims work best for tangible products

When ethical marketing claims are made for products that consumers can touch they are more likely to buy the product, according to a study conducted at Concordia Univeristy’s John Molson School of Business. 

People are better able to perceive the benefits of products that make claims, such as “not tested on animals” or “phosphate free”, when their sense of touch is appealed at the same time as their sense of social justice.

The paper, published in the prestigious Journal of Business Ethics, reveals ethical claims should reflect the product’s main benefits – which can be either functional or symbolic. An example of a functional product would be alkaline batteries and a symbolic product would be a Red Sox jersey.

The researchers asked 311 people to rate the marketing of utilitarian products (cough syrups and printer ink cartridges) and symbolic products (high school rings and hockey team car flags).

The results of the study revealed that for ethical marketing to work, utilitarian claims like “made with organic ingredients” need to be matched with utilitarian projects, such as cough syrup. Symbolic claims like fair trade should be paired with symbolic products, such as hats etc.

In addition, ethical claims are more likely to make someone purchase a product if they can physically touch the product. 

For example, stating that a shirt is made from organic cotton will boost sales, however, saying that printer ink is biodegradable will not.

H. Onur Bodur, lead reseacher, and director of the Centre for Multidisciplinary Behavioural Business Research, added:

“The importance of touch relates to what’s known as the positive contagion effect. That means that consumers are quicker to perceive increased benefits from products that involve a higher degree of physical contact, like something that you eat or wear. This is due to consumers’ belief that ethical benefits can be transferred through physical contact.”

Bodur concluded:

“If managers want to reap the benefits of sustainable marketing, they have to carefully consider the amount of physical contact consumers will have with their products, alongside the ethical claim they’re making about that product.”

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