Dr. Jatinder Singh, who joined the EADA Marketing Department last September, has been doing research into the factors that influence ethical consumer behaviour for over a decade. He became interested in the subject in 2002, while completing his doctorate at the University of Mississippi in the United States. Since then, he has published several articles on the emotions that influence the purchasing experience.
What are we referring to when we talk about “consumer ethics”?
We are talking about values, norms and behaviours that determine ethical purchasing behaviour. When consumers purchase a product or service, they can behave in a more ethical or less ethical way. This behaviour depends on the confluence of different factors, both internal and external, and hence we cannot draw up one single standard for ethical behaviour.
What are the main conclusions you have drawn from your research?
One of the most relevant conclusions is that people who are afraid behave more ethically. We have discovered that this is due to the fact that fear implies less self-control – in other words, a feeling of not dominating the situation. It is clear that a consumer who is afraid will not commit an unethical action. The opposite happens with people who are angry, because their outrage impels them to react unethically. Although fear and anger are both negative emotions, they lead to very different behaviours in consumers.
Are there different degrees of unethical behaviour?
Yes, there are. We have drawn a distinction between active and passive ethical behaviour. One example of active unethical behaviour is a person who enters a supermarket and consumes a product on the premises without paying for it later at the cashier. This action displays a deliberate intention to commit fraud. In contrast, passive unethical behaviour would be someone who receives more change than he was due at a restaurant. He realises that the change is wrong, but doesn’t say anything because he understands that it is not his mistake, but the restaurant’s.
What other external factors may influence ethical consumption?
There are various factors we need to take into account when analysing consumer behaviour. Cultural factors such as religion or socioeconomic status in a country are very important. For example, if I am a very religious person and my faith prohibits lying, I’m not likely to behave in an unethical manner. On the contrary, in the context of an economic crisis such as the one we are experiencing today, many people become angry and outraged with public institutions, which leads to unethical behaviour. In addition, we must look at how the established norms –as well as personal ethics– in each society influence our purchase.
What can you tell us about personal ethics?
Personal ethics can be classified into two groups: deontological ethics and teleological ethics. Deontological ethics are related to morals, which are basic principles that define our behaviour in a given situation or context. For example, a consumer with a strict moral code will never steal, even when the opportunity presents itself. Teleological norms are based on people acting in a specific way depending on the final outcome. In this case, a person without economic resources will steal if they think that this will enable them to survive. Unlike the first example, this person’s actions are directly related to an end, an outcome.
To what extent does your research mark a turning point with regard to previous studies?
In comparison with other studies on the emotions that influence consumers, both the positive (happiness, joy, excitement) and negative (anger, sadness, fear, anguish), my research studies identify the differences within the same group. As I said before, fear and anger are two negative emotions, but with different connotations. The same can be said for deontological and teleological norms, given that both are cognitive norms, but with a different impact. What’s more, we have identified similarities between opposite emotions. For example, anger is very similar to happiness – both cases require a great degree of self-control over emotions.
But we have gone even further, studying incidental emotion; in other words, how a circumstantial event may influence behaviour. Take, for example, an argument in the street. This will no doubt put us in a bad mood, which will continue even once we have returned to work.
Another unique aspect of our research is that we analyse the intensity of the situation. In the case of getting more change back at the restaurant, if there has been a mistake of 5 euros, it’s not the same as a mistake of 50 euros. And it’s not the same if I am very poor or if I have enough money to get by. The conclusion is that the higher the intensity, the more likely one is to behave unethically.
Recent studies have found a greater commitment to ethical and sustainable values in companies as a way of remaining competitive and improving reputation. In your opinion, are companies today taking CSR policies more seriously?
Clearly they are, because consumers are choosing efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly brands. Hence the growing interest on the part of companies in creating a sustainable and responsible image. What’s more, as we have found in various studies, a socially responsible brand image leads to greater customer loyalty. The problem we see is that the perception that consumers have of an ethical brand often doesn’t correspond to reality. They have a positive idea of the branding campaign, but they don’t really know what the company’s specific ethical values are. This is the case for Mercadona or McDonald’s.
What values are most important for brands in terms of reputation?
One of the most important values is information transparency. For example, giving all the details of a product’s ingredients, whether it contains preservatives or not, or the percentage of fat. This information is very relevant for consumers. But so is explaining how they reinvest the profits they make in society. Customers purchase the products and services of brands that promote and take part in various social initiatives such as solidarity campaigns with the Third World and responsible consumption initiatives. But companies must take care not to hurt the sensibilities of certain groups of consumers. For example, Burger King had to withdraw its “La merienda es sagrada” campaign in Spain because it displayed a Hindu goddess with a hamburger. This led to an outcry from the Indian community because their religion does not allow them to eat beef. This is a clear example of the global effect that a marketing campaign can have nowadays.
(Originally published on EADA’s institutional blog in Spanish).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jatinder Jit Singh is a professor in Marketing at EADA Business School Barcelona. He holds a doctorate in Marketing from the University of Mississippi (United States) and a degree from Guru Nanak Dev University of India. His research focuses on consumer ethics and his work has been published in international academic journals such as the Journal of International Marketing, AMS Review, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Brand Management and Journal of Product and Brand Management. Professor Jatinder has also given courses in market research, consumer behaviour and General Marketing (Strategy and Operations) and has participated in applied research projects with large international B2C brands in Spain.