If a fast-food brand, generally associated with junk food, sponsors the Leukemia Foundation, this may be considered to be a negative characteristic, hence it is a low-fit sponsorship," says Ravi Pappu. (Credit: Terry Ross/Flickr)

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Brands that sponsor charities need to fit the cause

Ever scratch your head over a pairing of a corporate sponsorship with a charity? Newly published research suggests that the brands of both can be damaged when perceived fit and similarities between sponsor and charity don’t align well.

“There is a public discussion,” says study co-author T. Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. “People pick it out when there is a sponsor attempting to move information or influence goodwill or image, and you don’t believe it. This study has a big message for both charities and companies.”

The new study—done in Australia in collaboration with lead author Ravi Pappu of the University of Queensland in Brisbane—was launched at the request of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. In Australia, most of 700,000 non-profit organizations depend on donations. The findings appear online ahead of print in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.


Three experiments looked at various combinations of perceived similarities and relationship fits between charities and potential sponsors. Researchers also considered how participants viewed the clarity of charity positioning, their attitudes toward the nonprofits, and their perceived trustworthiness of potential sponsors.

For the project, university students generated a list of 182 potential sponsors for charitable organizations to establish characteristics of fit and similarity. For the studies, Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken were chosen for use in fictional scenarios because of their variation. They were then paired with two charities, perceived as supporting public health, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and the Leukemia Foundation.

In an initial experiment, 101 students, ages 18 to 29, were randomly assigned to one of four conditions in the pairings of the four entities. Subway was seen as a healthy organization but KFC was not. The charities were seen as representing healthy lifestyles and promoting health, and Subway was seen as a better fit to both charities. In contrast, pairing the charities with KFC negatively impacted perceptions of the charity brands.

Similar findings emerged in two subsequent experiments done online with consumer panels of more than 200 adults. Pairings had the charities sponsored by the discount retailer Kmart, known in Australia for supporting social causes, and a regional department store that promotes fashion and the arts. In all cases, researchers found that high-fit sponsorships between high-similarity partners worked best. In contrast, low fit in the presence of high similarity draws questions.

Don’t raise suspicion

“Similarity means whether the sponsor and the nonprofit have something in common,” Pappu says. “For example, the Australian Red Cross aims to improve people’s health through blood donations. If Subway is seen as providing fresh, healthy food, and Subway sponsors the Blood Service, not only is there a similarity but people can also see a clear benefit from the sponsor brand to the cause. Therefore it is also a high-fit relationship.

“By contrast,” he continues, “fast-food chains and nonprofits, or causes promoting health, have less similarity since fast food may have an adverse effect on health. If a fast-food brand, generally associated with junk food, sponsors the Leukemia Foundation, this may be considered to be a negative characteristic, hence it is a low-fit sponsorship.”

Sponsors and nonprofits have to take relationship fit and partner similarity into consideration when considering sponsorships, Pappu and Cornwell says. If organizations are viewed as similar to each other, but the relationship is not high-fit, people become suspicious of a company’s motive.

The lessons learned can be applied worldwide, Cornwell says. Charities should balance their need for financial support with how their audience may perceive the pairing, or risk destroying their own brand, she says.

Cornwell and Pappu, whose work was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, say that companies can benefit, too. Corporations that want to improve their image and portray a sense of social responsibility should consider charities that are not similar on characteristics and do not have aligned differences such as health-unhealthy.

Source: University of Oregon

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