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Effects of Internal–External Congruence-Based CSR Positioning: An Attribution Theory Approach

Abstract

Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) appears to be mutually beneficial for companies and consumers, the modern marketplace has left both parties in vulnerable positions. Consumers are increasingly subjected to incongruent CSR messages such as greenwashing, while companies are trapped in a strategic positioning dilemma with regard to how to most effectively and ethically approach CSR communication. This has led some companies to instead adopt a strategically silent approach, such as greenhushing. To capture this CSR positioning dilemma and test the positioning effects on consumers’ attributions, this study applies attribution theory to conceptualize four distinct CSR positions (uniform, discreet, washing, and apathetic) which reflect varying combinations of congruence or incongruence between a company’s external CSR communication and its actual internal CSR actions. Using an online experiment, the effects of the CSR positions on consumer attributions for intrinsic and extrinsic CSR motivations and purchase intentions were tested across three CSR domains: environmental; labor; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Overall, the findings attest to the significant effect of internal–external congruence-based CSR positioning on how consumers respond to CSR communication. Importantly, the results indicate that discreet positioning is perceived similarly to uniform positioning, while misleading and unethical tactics such as CSR-washing are sure to backfire. Theoretical and managerial implications are discussed.

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Correspondence to Whitney Ginder.

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Whitney Ginder, Wi-Suk Kwon, and Sang-Eun Byun declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

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Ginder, W., Kwon, WS. & Byun, SE. Effects of Internal–External Congruence-Based CSR Positioning: An Attribution Theory Approach. J Bus Ethics 169, 355–369 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04282-w

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Keywords

  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
  • Attribution theory
  • Incongruence