I’ve written previously about the gap that seems to exist between consumers’ ethical values and consumers’ actual, practical application those ethical values. Even though a lot of us would like to buy in a more ethical and sustainable way, when it comes down to it, we sometimes (or perhaps frequently) don’t. Of course, there are plenty of factors that affect whether we enact our desire to consume more responsibly – the availability of sustainable items, the cost (relative to alternative items and relative to one’s own budget), the quality and range of more responsible options, etc.
Another thing that affects purchasing in general is, of course, brand attachment. Attachment in this context results in brand loyalty and commitment and willingness to pay higher prices to obtain that brand’s products. This is what pretty much every company and brand will be aiming for, so you can be sure that they’re doing what they can to facilitate brand attachment. How attached you are to a brand depends on the affective experiences it offers you (so what emotions it induces in you) and brand characteristics (for example, whether it seems to share values with you, whether it seems to have a brand personality that matches yours, etc.), among other things. But what are the consequences of being attached to a brand? Well, one of them, as investigated by Schmalz and Orth (2012), is how brand attachment influences people’s reactions to unethical behaviour by the company, firm or brand they’re attached to.
Does brand attachment shelter brands from negative publicity? Are brand devotees willing to overlook unethical behaviour, and if they are, to what extent? It’s interesting to think about these questions, given the pretty frequent media reports of relevant occurrences of unethical behaviour. The examples in Schmalz and Orth’s paper include when Nokia moved one of their production facilities from Germany to Romania to take advantage of cheaper labour (and German consumers got rid of their Nokia phones in protest); when Apple was exposed as having used covert video recording of employees in an attempt to reduce theft; and when it was found out that suppliers were plucking live geese to obtain down for a range of Ikea products. Obviously there are plenty of cognitive biases to help us deal with the cognitive dissonance of buying from brands even when we strongly disapprove of their actions, but what role does brand attachment play?
The researchers were interested in the extent to which brand attachment influenced consumer judgement, so they wanted to have two different levels of “unethical” behaviour – moderately unethical and highly unethical – and to see if brand attachment influenced judgement of the unethical behaviour differently between the two levels. What’s the difference between moderately and highly unethical behaviour? In this study, moderately unethical behaviour was when a brand engaged in negative behaviour but then offered some sort of compensation, whereas highly unethical behaviour was when the brand engaged in negative behaviour and didn’t offer compensation. This is one of the hypothetical example scenarios from the paper:
Coca-Cola has announced intentions to build a new plant. Space for the new plant will be allocated from a local nature reserve. While the German Society for Nature Conservation (NABU) has voiced strong concern about likely damage to the breeding grounds of red-listed white stork, Coca-Cola emphasizes that it will bring 2000 new jobs to the economically underdeveloped region.
Moderately unethical scenario:
To assuage project opponents, Coca-Cola states that even more jobs will be created in the near future through a projected increase in the plant’s output over the next years.
Highly unethical scenario:
Opponents of the project argue that the net job creation will be zero as Coca-Cola merely shifts production from one region to another.
Opinions of whether those two scenarios really are moderately and highly unethical, respectively, will vary hugely, but overall what the researchers were interested in was the difference between the moderately unethical scenario and the highly unethical scenario. So even if you personally thought that neither scenario was particularly unethical, or both were highly unethical, it’s still likely that you’d evaluate the second one more negatively than the first one.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that brand attachment does shield a brand from negative evaluation from consumers, but only when behaviour is moderately unethical – not when it is highly unethical and without any mitigating circumstances. When you’re strongly attached to a brand and they do something moderately unethical, you don’t judge them as harshly as someone who is only weakly attached to the brand. However, when the brand does something highly unethical, strongly attached people judge them just as harshly as weakly attached people. Developing customer loyalty therefore softens the blow for brands when they do something generally considered to be moderately unethical, but it won’t protect them if they do something objectively awful.
However, there’s another factor at play here that probably makes an immeasurably huge difference – the country of the people in the study and the country where the hypothetical unethical scenarios are set. This study was conducted in Germany and the scenarios were all about hypothetical events that occurred in Germany. It’s not relevant that it’s Germany specifically, but it is relevant that the unethical events are occurring in the same country as the people being asked to judge the unethical events. I think the results might have been different if the country in which the events occurred was different (geographically and/or culturally) from the country in which people were being asked to make the judgements. Limited familiarity with another country and its culture and standards of living make it more difficult to judge (or perhaps easier to dismiss, unfortunately). Consequently, maybe a brand could get away with unethical behaviour on the other side of the world, and the person making a judgement of the unethical behaviour won’t feel so personally impacted and therefore brand attachment might trump even highly unethical behaviour.
People’s attachments, whether to brands or to other people or to whatever, are complex and dynamic, so future research needs to investigate the other factors that influence the relationship between brand attachment and judgement of unethical behaviour.