The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) campaign illustrated the importance of social signaling with its tremendous job in turning October pink. CSR products were ubiquitous, from cosmetics to clothing and even on the feet and hands of NFL players.
What makes BCAM successful is that people prefer products that send out highly visible, social signals to their relatives, friends and peers regarding their benevolence. In fact, those who buy or wear "pink" think of themselves as being more charitable than those who don't -- literally wearing your charity on your sleeve is important to them.
People will even pay a premium for these products. In the past decade, they have increasingly bought products that have a CSR association, such as cell phones that give a portion of proceeds to cancer research. But our interest and research delved into the lesser-known specific motivations that underlie a consumer's decision to purchase these products.
In a variety of experiments, our research found that people also like the more private, self-signaling potential associated with the purchases of these products, even when a strong public social signal is absent to others.
In the research we did three studies. First, we manipulated the social signaling potential of the product by varying its location in consumers' bedrooms and living rooms to gauge the difference in their private and public living spaces.
Second, we kept the product in the same living space, but changed it from being helpful for social occasions like entertaining friends, or for personal occasions like indulging oneself with a reward.
Third, we changed the signaling potential of the product by changing its characteristics. For example, using iPod headphones with a CSR association of Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong foundation, we manipulated whether the yellow color was easily visible with fully yellow headphones, less visible white headphones with yellow earpieces, or not visible with fully white headphones.
Our research also uncovered that across all three studies, when products had a CSR-association like LiveStrong, they were evaluated more favorably with high social signaling potential -- like the highly visible yellow headphones -- than in the low social signaling potential. And, in fact, the low social signaling potential -- such as the less visible white headphones with yellow earpieces or plain white headphones -- lead to a lower evaluation of the product.
Also of note is that people preferred to use a CSR-associated product in a highly socially visible location like their living room, rather than in a less socially visible one like their bedroom.
So marketers should be aware that their appeal to people's charitable or giving nature will fail when they devalue these less visible, low self-signaling products. A concentrated effort will have to be made about what products marketers pick, their social self-signaling potential, and how the CSR information is conveyed.