Josh Coleman leans into the camera, clasping his hands.

Businesses with a cause engage consumers

Have you heard of TOMS Shoes: One for One or Warby Parker: Glasses for the Needy? Perhaps you’re familiar with STATE Bags: Give. Back. Pack.

These companies are cause-driven businesses, created to tackle social challenges while selling goods or services. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus said, a social enterprise is, “The new kind of capitalism that serves humanity’s most pressing needs.”

How do consumers feel?

Social enterprises have been the focus of Dr. Josh Coleman’s research since he started his PhD in marketing in 2013. They intrigued him because their mission to better society aligned with his own desire to make the world a better place.

“Today, social enterprises are everywhere. But 10 years ago, they were quite new,” said Coleman, associate professor of marketing at Missouri State University. “So, not only was it a niche I was passionate about, but there was an opportunity to make an impact in an area that didn’t have a lot of traction yet.”

The most common thread in his research is how consumers feel about social enterprises. To find this out, Coleman surveys consumers through online panels. Some include technology like eye tracking.

“Not to sound sappy or mushy, but the consistent theme of my work is, can we make the world a better place to do business?”

He has also traveled overseas and discovered firsthand how social enterprises work in different parts of the world.

He notes consumers have a wide range of feelings about these types of businesses. Some support the ideals of giving back and improving society. Some don’t care as long as they get good products. Others are skeptical.

“Most of what I look at is the idea of communication,” Coleman said. “How does a company communicate authenticity to consumers, so they buy into the mission and the product?”

Josh Coleman stares off contemplatively.

Which type of message to use?

Coleman has published more than 15 articles and a book chapter. Besides social enterprises, he covers related topics like cause-related marketing (CRM).

“As a professor, I’m not just here to grade my students’ exams and give them assignments. I want to teach them the value of honesty and integrity in advertising, which is something that’s sorely lacking today.”

His latest paper was featured in the Journal of Business Strategy. It explored communicating authentic motives through social enterprise advertisements.

For the study, Coleman presented four sets of ads in varying combinations through internet surveys. The ads contained messages with either giving cues (e.g. giving back clean water to the world) or selling cues (e.g. selling the best coffee in the world). Which ones did consumers find more authentic?

“In general, giving is always going to be more effective in communicating authenticity,” Coleman said.

He adds that if social enterprises present both giving and selling messages together, they will likely enjoy higher sales. But consumers may perceive their giving message as less authentic.

“Ideally, social entrepreneurs should just focus on the giving,” Coleman said. “And if they can’t, don’t try to shoot for the stars with authenticity. They’re never going to get there because there’s always going to be some skepticism of why they’re doing both.”

Josh Coleman stands atop a parking garage overlooking Springfield's downtown.

Pride vs. guilt appeals

Another paper Coleman published in the Journal of Advertising stemmed from his dissertation. It looked at which emotion – pride or guilt – is more effective in CRM advertising.

“Do you want to capture people with your vision or do you want to make them feel bad?” he said.

He approached the project with the assumption that most people would think pride was better. But the data he gathered showed that in some cases, guilt worked well.

“It comes down to, can a company align its message with its target audience? Because people are wired differently,” Coleman said. “Pride’s going to work sometimes, guilt’s going to work sometimes. It’s all about which emotion is right in the right context.”

Inspiring students

While publishing his research is rewarding, what matters more to Coleman is making it relevant to his students. It’s exciting for him to share his passion for this area with them.

“I can give them the theory, the research, the data and help inspire them to make the world a better place together through business,” Coleman said.

Dr. Steve Castleberry, a collaborator on several projects, highlights how Coleman also gives students hands-on learning opportunities.

“He has a social enterprise advertising project in one of his classes every semester,” said Castleberry, marketing and business ethics professor at University of Minnesota Duluth. “Not only is he advancing the academic world; he’s also sharing that knowledge with his students in a very meaningful and engaging way.”

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