Businesses are increasingly embracing social causes as a way to promote brand trust among consumers while also attempting to better society. However, a new study from the University of Missouri suggests that this type of marketing is ineffective for restaurants using animal welfare as a marketing tool.
“Restaurants have faced a lot of criticism for how they source their food, and it is logical to think that social cause marketing could mitigate that criticism the way it has for issues in other industries,” said Dae-Young Kim, lead author on the study and an associate professor of hospitality management in the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources. “We found that this kind of marketing does improve trust in restaurants on a variety of issues when the ads include engaging visuals, but when it comes to animal welfare, it doesn’t matter how the message is delivered. Customers don’t care.”
Along with Sung-Bum Kim, an assistant professor at Inha University in South Korea who worked on the study while earning a doctorate at the University of Missouri, the research team created marketing messages from fictional restaurants to investigate how such messages can affect levels of consumer trust and corporate reputation. Each message had two versions — text only or text with visual elements such as illustrations and certification seals — and each embraced one of four social causes: health, human services, environmental concern and animal welfare. Researchers then surveyed 433 participants about their reactions to the ads.
Unsurprisingly for the researchers, the majority of causes elicited improved trust and reputation for the restaurant when presented in a visually engaging message as opposed to a generic message with plain text. For the cause of animal welfare, however, consumer trust remained unchanged, regardless of the type of message, indicating apathy on the part of customers.
“We have seen that visually appealing cause marketing works in a variety of contexts across many different industries,” Dae-Young Kim said. “So, when we see this marketing fall flat for restaurants addressing animal welfare, it tells us that the style of message isn’t the problem. People are simply ignoring restaurants when they discuss that particular cause.”
Kim said the problem is probably not that people don’t care about animal welfare. One possible explanation is that not enough restaurants have taken a stance regarding animal welfare for customers to pay attention. Conversely, people might be more receptive to animal welfare messaging in a pet food advertisement because pet food companies have been incorporating that message into their marketing for several years. In that case, more marketing from restaurants addressing animal welfare could prompt more customers to start listening, Kim said.
The study, “Building Corporate Reputation, Overcoming Consumer Skepticism & Establishing Trust: Choosing the Right Message Types & Social Causes in the Restaurant Industry,” was published in Service Business. Kathleen Jeehyae Kim also contributed to the study while earning her doctorate.