When Do Social Sponsorships Enhance Or Dilute Equity? Fit, Message Source, and the Persistence of Effects

Karen Becker-Olsen, New York University
Carolyn J. Simmons, University of Virginia
[ to cite ]:
Karen Becker-Olsen and Carolyn J. Simmons (2002) ,"When Do Social Sponsorships Enhance Or Dilute Equity? Fit, Message Source, and the Persistence of Effects", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 287-289.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 287-289


Karen Becker-Olsen, New York University

Carolyn J. Simmons, University of Virginia

Support of social causes is a popular element of the promotional mix. The logic is that consumers will view a firm [Sponsors may be firms or brands, although we generally refer to firms, for simplicity.] more favorably if it sponsors social causes. We show that the effect of sponsorship is moderated by the perceived fit between the firm and the sponsored cause and by message source. High-fit sponsorships build equity, while low-fit sponsorships dilute equity. Further, sponsorships have a more favorable effect when they are communicated by the sponsored cause rather than by the sponsoring firm. While the effects of fit are highly persistent over time, the effects of message source are less so.

Why Does Fit Matter?

Social sponsorships can engender favorable affective and behavioral responses to the firm (cf. Barone, Miyazaki, and Taylor 2000), thus building brand equity. These benefits are lost, however, when fit is low. Low fit has two broad effects, one affective and one cognitive. First, low fit reduces the favorability of attitudes toward the sponsorship. This effect occurs because incongruity is negatively valued (Mandler 1982) and engenders a variety of unfavorable thoughts. Second, low fit reduces the value of the brand as a signal (cf. Erdem and Swait 1998). This effect occurs because the incongruity of low fit makes people less certain of the firm’s positioning; i.e., less certain of what they can expect from the firm.

Why Does Message Source Matter?

When a social sponsorship is announced by the firm, consumers often regard the sponsorship as mechanism for increasing sales. Announcing the sponsorship through the sponsored cause can induce consumers to think about the sponsorship from the perspective of the cause and thus to react more positively to low-fit sponsorships.

Experiment 1: The Effects of Native Fit

We first demonstrate the effects of native fitCthe extent to which the firm and the sponsored cause are perceived as fitting together, independent of program details or communications that may create a fit between organizations. For example, Alpo and the Humane Society are high in native fit because both are strongly associated with pets. In contrast, Alpo and the Special Olympics are low in native fit because they share no strong association. Alpo is associated with pet food and pets, and the Special Olympics is associated with athletics for the mentally disabled.

Our subjects read a news clipping containing several items. One item described a firm’s recent expansion of its on-line store. The item either did or did not mention the firm’s sponsorship of a non-profit organization. When a sponsorship was mentioned, the sponsored cause was one that was perceived to be either low or high in fit. Subjects who read about a low-fit sponsorship generated less favorable thoughts, formed a less favorable attitude toward the sponsorship, saw the firm’s positioning as less clear, and generated less favorable affective and behavioral responses to the firm. Further, the effects of fit on firm equity, as indicated by these affective and behavioral responses, are completely mediated by attitude toward the sponsorship and the perceived clarity of the firm’s positioning. Comparisons with a no-sponsorship control condition further show that low fit decreases equity relative to no sponsorship, while high fit increases equity.

Experiment 2: Created Fit, Message Source, and the Persistence of Effects

We next demonstrate the effects of created fit and message source and examine their persistence over time. Created fit derives from program details or communications rather than from an inherently high fit between organizations. For example, Alpo might sponsor the Special Olympics, and create a fit with this cause by donating a pet to participants and publicizing evidence that caring for pets increases the self-esteem of the mentally disabled.

Using a procedure similar to that of Experiment 1, we find that the effects of created fit parallel those observed for native fit, and remain significant up to one year later. Further, a non-profit source generally results in more favorable responses than a company source, although these effects do not persist through our one-year follow-up. Subjects’ thoughts provide suggestive evidence that a non-profit source achieves its beneficial effects in part by reducing the salience of the firm’s self-interested goals and thereby reducing the salience of low fit. Finally, a created-fit strategy improves recall of the sponsored cause over a one-year period. Subjects’ thoughts provide sugestive evidence that this improved recall results from the richer elaboration engendered by created fit.


Responses to social sponsorships are not uniformly positive. In addition to the moderators demonstrated in the current work, we expect that there are many others. We next plan to examine promotion strategy and audience composition as potential moderators.

Promotion Strategy. We can identify at least two strategies used to promote social sponsorships. In the collective strategy, a firm jointly promotes several social sponsorships, often under the banner of "social responsibility." In the featured strategy, a firm features a single social sponsorship in a communication. The situation we examined is representative of the featured strategy, and so it is to this strategy that our findings may be most confidently generalized. However, we suspect that the risks of low fit are less with the collective strategy. A collective of low-fit sponsorships may divert critical attention from individual sponsorships while still conveying an impression of social responsibility. At the same time, we suspect that the low-fit collective strategy does not offer substantial benefits. Lists of good deeds that are unrelated to the firm’s image risk being uninteresting and are unlikely to encourage much thought.

Audience Composition. In the same way that message source shifts a consumer’s evaluative perspective from that of the firm to that of the sponsored cause, audience composition may predispose it to one or the other of these perspectives. For example, people with close ties to the cause may be less critical of low fit than is a more general audience. Hence, our results for fit may not generalize, for example, to ads featured in publications that reach primarily the supporters of the sponsored cause.


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