This article uncovers an important yet overlooked antecedent of brand ethicality that lies beyond the predominant focus on environmental and social actions in the literature: perceived brand authenticity. Perceived authenticity and brand ethicality strongly drive consumer decision making, but the link between the two has not been closely scrutinized. This article examines how two types of authenticity cues (indexical and iconic) differently influence consumers’ perceptions of brand ethicality. Across five studies and four different product categories, the findings show that indexical authenticity cues (i.e., an original product by a brand) lead to greater perceived brand ethicality than iconic authenticity cues (i.e., an authentic reproduction by the same brand). The underlying mechanism is that indexical authenticity cues (compared to iconic authenticity cues) prompt people to perceive that a product is made with more effort; this increases their perception that it is crafted with love, which then enhances their perception of brand ethicality. The findings also indicate that lower perceived brand ethicality when using iconic authentic cues (versus indexical authentic cues) can be offset by the notion that developing the product involved intense effort.
Evidence that consumers crave ethical brands and products is widespread in both research and practice. Researchers have acknowledged the increasing influence of firm and brand ethicality on consumers’ decision-making processes and behaviors (e.g., Das et al., 2019; Iglesias et al., 2019; Singh et al., 2012). A global survey by Accenture Strategy (2018) of 30,000 consumers in 35 countries found that 62% find brands with high ethical values attractive. Thus, brands have motives to invest in and communicate about their ethics, as when the Adidas Group promotes its chemical management program to reduce its environmental impacts,Footnote 1 or the brand Stella McCartney advertises its recycled polyester and organic cotton materials.Footnote 2
In response to these trends, researchers have investigated outcomes of consumers’ perceptions of brand ethicality. For instance, research has shown that brand ethicality led to positive emotional responses (Sierra et al., 2017), increased perceptions of trustworthiness (Singh et al., 2012), enhanced brand equity, enduring loyalty (Iglesias et al., 2019; Palihawadana et al., 2016), improved attitudes, and increased sales (Folkes & Kamins, 1999; Mascarenhas, 1995). Yet, relatively little attention has centered on the antecedents that foster perceptions of brand ethicality, and previous studies limited their scope to social concerns (e.g., fair labor practices, humane treatment of animals, and fair prices for local producers) or environmental actions (e.g., recycling, avoiding pollution, and using organic growing processes) that customers can use to evaluate the ethical attributes of a firm or a product (Iglesias et al., 2019; Luchs et al., 2010; Peloza et al. 2013; White et al., 2012) and to form a brand image (Nelson, 2004; Newman & Brucks, 2018; Rotman et al., 2018; Sen & Bhattacharya, 2001; Yoon et al., 2006). We suggest moving beyond social and environmental cues to consider a different antecedent of perceived brand ethicality: authenticity, which is a vital modern marketing concept (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020; Joo et al., 2019). The authenticity of a brand has been conceptualized as being “faithful and true toward itself and customers” (Morhart et al., 2015, p. 202), reflecting “what a brand really is” (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020, p. 42). No study has clearly established brand authenticity as an antecedent of brand/product perceived ethicality.
Perceived authenticity depends on a subjective perception based on cues that signal authenticity, and several authors have shown how consumers can use specific cues to judge brand authenticity (e.g., Beverland et al., 2008; Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Napoli et al., 2014; Newman & Smith, 2016). However, no study has examined empirically the potential differential impact of types of authenticity on brand-related outcomes, depending on the cues used. We suggest distinguishing two forms of authenticity cues which could produce different perceptions of brand ethicality: indexical and iconic cues. Indexical authenticity cues adhere to an original object (e.g., the original VW Beetle or a first-series product), whereas iconic authenticity cues refer to an authentic reproduction or replica (e.g., a recent VW Beetle or a second-series product) (Grayson & Martinec, 2004). Throughout the paper, we refer to indexical cues and iconic cues when investigating types of cues which can be used by marketers to signal authenticity, and we refer to perceived authenticity when analyzing the outcome of signaling authenticity.
We conduct five studies across four different product categories (design chair, perfume, music album, and beer). We predict and empirically demonstrate that indexical authenticity cues evoke greater perceived ethicality than iconic authenticity cues; we also identify the mechanism underlying this effect. When products have indexical authenticity, perceived effort is higher, which in turn enhances perceived love embedded in the products, which leads to greater perceived brand ethicality.
By examining how different types of authenticity cues affect perceived brand ethicality, this article makes three main contributions.
First, it specifies how perceived authenticity alters perceptions of brand ethicality. In past research, brands portraying themselves as green, eco-friendly and socially responsible, using fair trade, or helping to improve customer welfare have been studied to explore brand ethicality (e.g., Ferrell et al., 2019; Magnier & Schoormans, 2015; Singh et al., 2012). By investigating the effects of perceived brand authenticity, our research goes beyond social and environmental actions in the study of brand ethicality.
Second, previous research has mainly focused on conceptualizing authenticity and its sub-dimensions, such as indexical and iconic authenticity cues (e.g., Beverland et al., 2008; Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Napoli et al., 2014; Newman & Smith, 2016), but did not investigate empirically how types of authenticity differentially influence brand-related outcomes. We demonstrate a distinct effect of indexical and iconic cues on perceived ethicality.
Third, we clarify how the two types of authenticity cues affect perceived brand ethicality by signaling effort and love differently. These insights advance the effort heuristic literature (Cho & Schwarz, 2008; Kruger et al., 2004) by showing that perceived effort is not only a heuristic for quality but also influences perceived ethicality through perceptions of embedded love.
Theoretical Background and Hypotheses
Authenticity and Ethicality
Authenticity is defined as the evaluation, judgment, or assessment of how real or genuine a product or brand is (e.g., Beckman et al., 2009; Beverland & Farrelly, 2010; Grayson & Martinec, 2004). Authenticity seems particularly important for contemporary consumers and their evaluations of firms and brands (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020). It appears among the top ten future marketing trends defined by Euromonitor International (2019) and is a key to business success according to Interbrand (2017) and Accenture Strategy (2018). Beattie and Fernley (2017) found that 63% of consumers would buy from authentic brands and companies, and accordingly, consumer behavior researchers have called authenticity one of the vital concepts of modern marketing in consumer research (Joo et al., 2019) and a central determinant of brand status, equity, and corporate reputation (Carsana & Jolibert, 2018; Morhart et al., 2015). In this priority role, perceived authenticity enhances perceived product quality (Moulard et al., 2016), purchase intention (Napoli et al., 2014), and loyalty (Shuqair et al., 2019). We propose that perceived authenticity also exerts a favorable influence on perceived brand ethicality. The link between authenticity and ethics has been studied in non-consumer/non-brand-related domains such as leadership/business ethics and psychology. However, despite its importance in consumption-related perceptions, little is known about how authenticity affects ethics in the field of branding.
The association between perceived authenticity and ethical behaviors has been established in leadership research showing that leaders recognized as authentic are also perceived to have internalized ethical perspectives, such that they facilitate positive ethical climates (Iszatt-White, 2019; Luthans & Avolio, 2003; Steckler & Clark, 2019). To followers, an authentic leader does what is most congruent with deeply held values (Mazutis & Slawinski, 2015; Steckler & Clark, 2019) and strives to maintain a seamless link between espoused values, behaviors, and actions (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). This congruence leads to perceptions of ethicality, due to the implicit assumption that leaders have high moral character (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). This link might be challenged if a leader authentically embraces low-benevolence values and thus does not necessarily behave ethically (Qu et al., 2019); in other words, authenticity is not always equivalent to ethicality (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Qu et al., 2019; Sendjaya et al., 2016), because an authentic leader’s actions reflect values which may not involve high moral character (e.g., Luthans & Avolio, 2003). In fact, authentic leadership can be value-free (i.e., a leader can be an “authentic jerk”) (Qu et al., 2019; Sendjaya et al., 2016) and exhibit authentic alignment with unethical values.
Recent psychology research has also noted a link between individual (in)authenticity and (un)ethicality (Ebrahimi et al., 2020; Gino et al., 2010, 2015). In this perspective, authenticity is associated with a personal sense of self and entails matching a true self with behaviors that are evident to others; similarly, ethicality implies being honest and not pretending. If, for instance, people wear counterfeit goods in order to send desirable signals to others (“I am an admirable person”), they might experience negative signals to themselves (“I am fake”), which may cause them to feel inauthentic and prompt further dishonest behaviors (Gino et al., 2010). Inauthenticity and dishonesty thus share a similar root: Both violate the principle of being true, to oneself or to others (Gino et al., 2010, 2015).
In the domain of branding, no research has linked perceived authenticity with consumer perceived ethicality, defined as “consumers’ aggregate perception of a subject’s (i.e., a company, brand, product, or service) morality” (Brunk & Bluemelhuber, 2011, p. 134). Brunk and Bluemelhuber (2011) operationalized consumer perceived ethicality as a six-dimensional construct: adhering to environmental rules and laws, respecting moral norms, being a well-intended brand, having a positive impact on the community, avoid damaging behavior, and taking into account the positive or negative consequences of one’s actions. An ethical brand is one that avoids causing harm (Williams & Aitken, 2011) and is accountable to a wide set of stakeholders (Brunk, 2010). Consumer perceived ethicality is a critical driver of brand loyalty (Singh et al., 2012). Yet, to date, little research has examined how ethical perceptions are formed or how to enhance consumer perceived ethicality (Brunk & Boer, 2020).
Here, we advance this area of research and, more precisely, we investigate how different types of authenticity cues affect perceived brand ethicality. Previous research on types of authenticity has mainly aimed to conceptualize authenticity and its different types of cues (e.g., Beverland et al., 2008; Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Napoli et al., 2014; Newman & Smith, 2016); it has not verified how different authenticity cues influence brand-related outcomes. Past research on ethical brands has been mostly associated with fair trade or social responsibility cues (Ferrell et al., 2019). Thus, to our knowledge, our study is the first to investigate how two types of authenticity cues (indexical versus iconic) differently impact brand ethical perceptions. We focus not on the effect of perceived authenticity intensity (as both indexical and iconic authenticity are perceived as highly authentic) but on how the type of authenticity cues communicated by brands (using either indexical or iconic cues) impacts perceived brand ethicality.
Brand Authenticity and Types of Authenticity
Conceptually, there is a consensus in the literature that the authenticity of an entity is a socially constructed concept based on the extent to which the entity is considered true to itself (Leigh et al., 2006). Authenticity assessments depend on individuals’ perceptions, corresponding to a subjective evaluation and not necessarily on properties inherent in the object or brand (Rose & Wood, 2005). Perceived authenticity reflects the degree to which consumers believe an entity is true to and matches a point of reference, against which they compare that entity (Audrezet et al., 2018). If an entity seems true to itself and avoids pretense or dissimulation, the “frontstage” corresponds with the “backstage” (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020). In a brand or product setting, perceived authenticity depends on whether the brand or product is perceived as corresponding to the “real thing” or to an ideal (Moulard et al., 2016). A perception that a brand or product is authentic reflects an external judgment as to whether it matches the characteristics of the original object (Beckman et al., 2009; Beverland & Farrelly, 2010; Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Leigh et al., 2006; Mazutis & Slawinski, 2015; Napoli et al., 2014).
To develop authenticity perceptions, consumers can use both fact-based reality cues (e.g., proof of origin; an indexical cue) and stylized versions of reality cues (e.g., impression of sincerity; an iconic cue) (Beverland et al., 2008). To signal the extent to which an entity is authentic and matches that point of reference, previous research has identified several potential authentic cues leading to perceived authenticity. While a body of authenticity literature has adopted Grayson and Martinec’s (2004) distinction between indexical and iconic authenticity cues (e.g., Carsana & Jolibert, 2018; Castéran & Roederer, 2013; Ewing et al., 2012; Fritz et al., 2017; Riefler, 2020), other researchers have included existentialist cues (e.g., Beverland & Farrelly, 2010; Morhart et al., 2015). In terms of brand authenticity, indexical cues signal whether the object is the original version or the real thing (e.g., the original VW Beetle), whereas iconic cues signal whether an object resembles the original version and is perceived as an authentic reproduction (e.g., the recent, second version of the VW Beetle) (Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Newman & Smith, 2016). Newman and Smith (2016) argued that, in contrast to the former cues, existential authenticity cues (an element in agent-based authenticity) are not concerned with verifying attributes of objects but rather with achieving a certain personal and subjective state of being. As such, existential authenticity cues seem to be highly personal and idiosyncratic in nature, leading to a model of verification that is fundamentally different than object-based authenticity like indexical and iconic authenticity cues (Newman & Smith, 2016). Here, because we are considering brand/product authenticity, we have chosen to focus on object-based authenticity, which provides a less idiosyncratic perception that an object is the original version (indexical) or an authentic reproduction (iconic), compared to a perception that it is assisting in uncovering one’s true self and/or creating meaning (existential).
The choice to investigate indexical and iconic authenticity cues empirically is in line with a set of studies on authenticity that has focused solely on object-based dimensions (e.g., Carsana & Jolibert, 2018; Ewing et al., 2012; Grayson & Martinec, 2004). Accordingly, we focus on two sub-dimensions of object-based authenticity (Newman & Smith, 2016): indexical and iconic cues. We conceptualize iconic and indexical authenticity cues using the seminal work of Grayson and Martinec (2004). These authors defined indexical cues of authenticity as those that rely on a factual connection between the entity and its origins (e.g., time and location), whereas iconic cues signal that the entity is an accurate replica. Therefore, indexical authenticity refers to the original object or the first in the series (e.g., the original VW Beetle) and tends to be evaluated on the basis of objective information, such as a certificate of origin (Dwivedi & McDonald, 2018); iconic authenticity refers to authentic reproduction (e.g., the recent, second version of the VW Beetle) and generally reflects assessments of the entity’s resemblance to the original (Beverland & Farrelly, 2010). Beverland et al. (2008) further suggested that iconic cues give a general impression of a brand’s authentic aura, whereas indexical cues underlie in situ evaluations of a particular product. Indexical and iconic cues can both prompt a perception of authenticity (Morhart et al., 2015), but empirical research into their distinct effects is lacking.
As previously discussed, research in leadership and psychology has established links between perceived authenticity and ethicality, but it is not clear how indexical or iconic authenticity cues influence perceived ethicality. Another stream in the literature can inform these questions, namely, research on creativity (e.g., Newman & Bloom, 2012). Studies of creative processes identify differences in people’s perceptions of an original version (similar to indexical authenticity) and its reproductions (similar to iconic authenticity). Even if the original artwork and the duplicates are made by the same creator, the subsequent reproductions may create a sense that the creator is exhibiting laziness or a lack of creativity. Thus, reiterations of an original idea, as expressed in painting an artwork, composing a piece of music, or writing a book or academic paper, can signal that the author has taken an easy path (Bretag & Mahmud, 2009; Newman & Bloom, 2012; Scanlon, 2007) and can trigger debate about the ethicality of reproductions, even for those that have been produced and fully acknowledged by the creator (e.g., Scanlon, 2007).
Whether it is ethical to reproduce an original piece remains an open question. On the one hand, the act of replication might reflect an intention to deceive or the absence of sufficient acknowledgment and transparency (Bretag & Mahmud, 2009; Scanlon, 2007). Copying one’s own prior work could be viewed as a form of laziness (Newman & Bloom, 2012). On the other hand, if artists replicate part or all of their prior original creations, they are not stealing from anyone else or depriving another author of credit. Because integrity demands transparency and intellectual honesty, being transparent about the replication of existing ideas could even be viewed as an ethical act. Due to these ambivalent perspectives, it is not possible to establish with confidence how an original version and a reproduction by the same creator might vary in their effects on perceived ethicality. To investigate this question, we start with the following hypothesis:
Compared to iconic authenticity cues, indexical authenticity cues of a market offering lead to greater perceived ethicality
To clarify how we reached this prediction, we explain the predicted underlying mechanism of the link between perceived authenticity and consumer perceived ethicality. In so doing, we build on leadership research, which has highlighted the links between ethical leadership, hard work, and caring. Eisenbeiß and Brodbeck (2014) conceptualized an ethical leader as one who achieves success by working hard and exhibits care for other people. Applying these notions to a brand consumption context, we investigate consumers’ perceptions of how much effort (hard work) and love (care) has been devoted to producing the product (Fuchs et al., 2015). We investigate how ‘made with effort’ and ‘made with love’ influence the link between the two types of authenticity and consumer perceived ethicality.
Concept of Effort
Conceptually, effort comprises duration, intensity, and direction (Campbell & Pritchard, 1976; Kanfer, 1991; Naylor et al., 1980). Perceived effort refers to the amount of energy an observer believes an actor has invested in a behavior (Mohr & Bitner, 1995). In psychology, the notion of effort usually has positive connotations: The more effort people invest (in the form of time, physical exertion, pain, or money), the more positive the evaluation of the outcome of that effort (Wicklund & Brehm, 1976), seemingly due to the heuristic belief that quality requires more careful work and effort (Cho & Schwarz, 2008). This heuristic applies to both self-generated effort outcomes and the results of others’ labor. People value effort and like others who make efforts on their behalf (Tjosvold et al., 1981), so if the effort invested by a producer appears greater, evaluators judge more favorably the outcome quality, value, and likeability (Kruger et al., 2004).
Indexical Authenticity Cues and ‘Made with Effort’
Effort signals commitment, which is a willingness to devote time and energy to a job, activity, or cause (Söderlund & Sagfossen, 2017). A person committed to a goal undertakes the effort to pursue it (Kruger et al., 2004; Newman & Brucks, 2018) and devotes resources to achieving it. Such commitment can be associated with authenticity, in that it denotes true dedication to a task that, in turn, creates readiness of mind to pursue an action (Somers, 1995). Moulard et al. (2014) demonstrated that authentic artists are deeply committed to their artworks. In a consumption setting, Leigh et al. (2006) determined that being an authentic owner of a Morris Garage (MG) car is associated with personal investment in terms of devoting time to socializing with other owners and to doing the mechanical work required to restore one’s MG car.
In addition to this link between authenticity and effort, we seek to establish a further distinction based on types of authenticity cues. Indexical and iconic authenticity cues should influence perceptions of the effort invested in a production process differently, such that indexical authenticity may signal greater effort. Indexical authenticity cues refer to the original version, indicating that its creation is likely to demand substantial resources, creativity, and effort to proceed through the experimentation, learning, and failure stages (Augsdörfer et al., 2013). In contrast, iconic authenticity cues refer to an authentic replica for which there is no trial-and-error phase. Therefore, an indexical authentic market offering could provide stronger ‘made with effort’ signals than an iconic authentic one. Formally, we offer the following hypothesis:
Compared to iconic authenticity cues, indexical authenticity cues of a market offering lead to a stronger perception that it was made with effort
‘Made with Effort’ and Consumer Perceived Ethicality
Research in business ethics has established a heuristic according to which hard work or effort signals high ethics (Furnham, 1984). The more effort a person expends, the more virtuous qualities (such as diligence and responsibility) that person is deemed to possess (Fwu et al., 2017). Work ethics, as a cultural value, also provide a mental heuristic for judging the morality of others, with the assumption that hard work, as opposed to laziness, is moral and inherently strengthens character (Amos et al., 2019; Oguegbe et al., 2014). For example, entrepreneurs’ dedication and effort to a difficult endeavor is perceived as a sign of high ethics (Lowrey & Xie, 2019).
Similarly, judgments of products and their producers depend on perceptions of the production process, according to studies in marketing (Fuchs et al., 2015; Reich et al., 2017) and psychology (Kruger et al., 2004; Newman & Bloom, 2012). Evidence of physical and mental effort (Buell & Norton, 2011; Cho & Schwarz, 2008; Kruger et al., 2004), talent (Cho & Schwarz, 2008), creativity/insight (Miceli et al. 2020), production mode (e.g., made by hand or machine; Fuchs et al., 2015), spontaneity (Morewedge et al., 2014), and even mistakes (Reich et al., 2017) all influence product and brand perceptions. Therefore, a sense that a market offering has been made with effort should enhance judgments of its ethicality, because hard work cues high ethics (Furnham, 1984; Fwu et al., 2017; Lowrey & Xie, 2019). This reasoning implies the following mediation hypothesis:
Compared to iconic authenticity cues, indexical authenticity cues of a market offering lead to a stronger perception that it was made with effort, which increases the perceived ethicality of the market offering
Concept of Love
As discussed above, Eisenbeiß and Brodbeck (2014) established that hard work and caring about others are essential traits for ethical leaders. We translate this into a consumption context by investigating how perceived effort (hard work), as discussed in Sect. “Concept of Effort”, and perceived love (care) put into the production process of a product influence perceived ethicality. Several scholars, such as Baer (2007), described love in terms of caring for the welfare and happiness of others. Schaw et al. (2016) acknowledged the multidimensional properties of care, which include the notion of “care for” associated with affection or love. Chowdhury (2019) demonstrated that a care/harm foundation, associated with welfare and compassion, relates positively to consumers’ ethical beliefs about “doing good” (Vitell & Muncy, 2005).
An ethics of care (Gilligan, 1982) may also influence altruistic actions, because care and love require that we respect others as valued ends in and of themselves rather than as a means to achieve our desires, our sought-after outcomes, or our self-gratification (Fromm, 1956). Ferris (1988) described love as a consciously chosen mindset that allows us to see others differently: a deep respect based on oneness with others. In turn, people engage “wholeheartedly with what … [they] love” (Belitz & Lundstrom, 1997). Love for an activity thus becomes manifest in liking it, considering it important, and investing time and energy in it (Vallerand et al., 2008). Artisans appear to love their craft, as demonstrated by the years they spend trying to master it, their investment of their selves in their products, the satisfaction they find in the production process, and their appreciation for the products of their labor (Fuchs et al., 2015).
Marketing literature also reveals how love can be informative in consumption contexts. The notion of brand love refers to consumers’ passionate affection for and true devotion to brands (e.g., Carroll & Ahuvia, 2006). Fuchs et al. (2015) described love linked to a producer and its products; for example, when consumers develop strong emotions about a particular craft through their own production activities (e.g., cooking or making Christmas ornaments) (Norton et al., 2012), they transfer those feelings to others, which leads them to believe that other producers are similarly emotionally invested in their work. Liu et al. (2019) demonstrated that consumers might even perceive love in the figurative nature of a menu, such that a handwritten (vs. machine-written) menu signals “love” expressed by restaurant owners, who thus appear passionate and caring about the process of menu design, sourcing, and production.
Linking ‘Made with Effort’ and ‘Made with Love’
Passion and love for a production process or task may foster perceptions of authenticity (Audrezet et al., 2018; Cinelli & Le Bœuf, 2020; Moulard et al., 2014, 2016), but determining the extent to which a brand manager or producer of a market offering engages lovingly in a task may be difficult for consumers. Building on self-perception theory (Bem, 1972), we predict that visible effort manifestations may be interpreted as signals of love. According to this theory (Bem, 1972), people infer attitudes to an activity from observing behaviors. Gielnik et al. (2015) argued that if consumers observe voluntary investments of time and resources in an activity, they infer a sense of real love for this activity. In a consumption context, if a provider seems to “go the extra mile” in producing its offerings, consumers might infer its willingness to invest effort in improving quality, due to its love for the product and devotion to its production process (Liu et al., 2019). Thus, observing that a production task is ‘made with effort’ might be processed as a signal that the product, too, was ‘made with love.’
‘Made with Love’ and Consumer Perceived Ethicality
Many definitions of love include caring about others, which might be framed as altruism (Hegi & Bergner, 2010), other-interest (Rempel & Burris, 2005), or other-oriented hope (Bovens, 1999). Altruism is essential to ethics (FitzPatrick, 2017), in that concern for others leads to helping (Tang et al., 2008) and prosocial (De Dreu & Nauta, 2009) behaviors. People with other-oriented values are more likely to adopt norms that promote the collective interest and welfare (Lester et al., 2008). Following this reasoning, we argue that a product perceived as being made with love signals a higher degree of other-orientation and helping inclinations, and thus a higher degree of perceived ethicality. In particular, the use of indexical cues (an original product) may evoke the perception that the market offering has required more time and energy, or that is was ‘made with more effort,’ which then increases the strength of the perception that it was ‘made with more love’ than when iconic cues (an authentic replica) are used. This reasoning implies a sequential mediation of the relationship between indexical authenticity and consumer perceived ethicality: A stronger perception that a market offering is made with effort increases the perception that it is made with love, which then enhances perceived ethicality. Formally, we propose:
Compared to iconic authenticity cues, the indexical authenticity cues of a market offering lead to a stronger perception that it was made with effort, which leads to a higher perception that the offering was made with love, which subsequently enhances the perceived ethicality of that market offering.
Overview of Studies
We test our hypotheses in five studies involving four product categories (furniture, perfume, music album, and beer). We measure brand ethicality using a consumer perceived ethicality (CPE) scale for a brand (Brunk, 2012), which spans a broad scope. CPE refers to the perception that a brand is a good market actor that respects moral norms, abides by the law, is socially responsible, avoids harm, weighs the positive and negative consequences of its behavior, and applies consequentialist and non-consequentialist evaluations of its actions (Sierra et al., 2017). In Study 1a, we test whether a brand using indexical authentic cues is perceived as more ethical than when it uses iconic authentic cues. Study 1b tests how indexical and iconic authentic cues relate to a general authentic cue condition and shows that indexical authentic cues lead to a higher perceived ethicality compared to iconic authentic cues and general authentic cues, whereas the latter two do not differ. Study 2 addresses part of the hypothesized mechanism; it establishes that differences in CPE are driven by perceptions of how much effort is required to make a product. Study 3 further extends our proposed mechanism by manipulating effort directly, and shows that the lower ethicality in the case of iconic authentic cues can be offset by the notion that developing the product involved intense effort. With further examination of the underlying process in Study 4, we show that a stronger perception that a product is made with effort leads to the perception that it is made with love, which evokes higher perceived ethicality.
To test H1, we consider whether indexical authenticity cues lead to higher CPE for a brand, compared with iconic authenticity cues.
Pretest Design and Procedures
In the pretest, we first sought to check the manipulations of indexical and iconic authenticity. We recruited 100 Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) panelists to participate in exchange for monetary compensation (52% women, Mage = 40.46 years, SD = 12.55). The panelists read messages focused on either the iconic or the indexical authentic cues for a designer chair (see Appendix A). In line with prior research into authenticity and its sub-dimensions (e.g., Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Napoli et al., 2014), the message in the indexical cues condition stressed that the chair was an original from the first series, and that it came with an official certificate of origin. The iconic authentic cues condition described the chair as part of a second series, designed to pay tribute to an original, first series made by the same brand (i.e., an authentic reproduction/recreation); it also included an official brand booklet. We intentionally did not use any words with potentially negative connotations, such as ‘reproduced,’ ‘recreated,’ or ‘imitated,’ to describe the iconic authentic product, because those words themselves could be perceived as less ethical (i.e., as counterfeit or fake). Instead, the phrasing positively acknowledged the original work, using phrases such as ‘pay tribute to,’ ‘designed after,’ and ‘inspired by.’
After reading their randomly assigned messages, the participants gave their responses on a general measure of brand authenticity (α = .94; Ewing et al., 2012) that uses three seven-point semantic differential scales to measure the extent to which they perceived the brand as real versus fake, genuine versus phony, and authentic versus inauthentic (1 = real/genuine/authentic and 7 = fake/phony/inauthentic). The measures of indexical authenticity (α = .81; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018) and iconic authenticity (α = .87; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018) each included four items on a five-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree). The former consisted of the following items: “The brand prefers original products to copies or imitations,” “The brand makes an effort to produce original and genuine products whenever possible,” “The brand does not like to produce imitations,” and “If the brand produces a product, it is important that it is the original version.” The items for the latter measure were as follows: “The brand prefers products that resemble the original,” “The brand prefers products which are close to the original,” “As long as the product resembles the original product, the brand is satisfied,” and “For the brand, experiences are authentic as long as they resemble the original one.” We controlled for brand attitude and brand knowledge by measuring how respondents evaluated the brand as well as how they would judge their knowledge about the brand, using a single-item seven-point scale (1 = negative/never heard about this brand and 7 = positive/know this brand very well).Footnote 3
A general linear model (GLM) with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude and brand knowledge as covariates, and indexical authenticity, iconic authenticity, and general authenticity as dependent variables showed that the manipulation of iconic and indexical authenticity cues was successful. Respondents who read about a product with iconic authentic cues give higher scores on iconic authenticity (M = 3.87, SD = .66) and lower scores on indexical authenticity (M = 3.62, SD = .67) compared with those who read a description of a product with indexical authentic cues (iconic M = 3.36, SD = .85; F(1, 96) = 10.84, p = .001; indexical M = 4.03, SD = .78; F(1, 96) = 12.17, p = .001). However, we found no difference in their ratings of general brand authenticity between the iconic authenticity condition (M = 2.14, SD = 1.17) and the indexical authenticity condition (M = 2.37, SD = 1.35; F(1, 96) = .04, p = .837).
Main Study Design and Procedures
We recruited 200 MTurk panelists to participate in this study in exchange for monetary compensation (54% women, Mage = 39.65 years, SD = 12.57). The panelists were randomly assigned to the indexical or iconic authentic cues messages about the designer chair that we had pretested (see Appendix A). To assess the CPE relative to the brand (α = .92; Brunk, 2012), we asked them to report the extent to which they perceived that the brand respects moral norms, always adheres to the law, is socially responsible, avoids damaging behavior at all costs, is a good brand, and makes decisions only after careful consideration of the potential positive and negative consequences for all those involved, using a seven-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). We controlled for brand attitude.
Main Study Results
In support of H1, we ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude as covariate, and CPE as dependent variable. The results show that participants in the indexical authenticity cues condition perceive the brand as more ethical (M = 5.27, SD = 1.00) compared with participants in the iconic authenticity cues condition (M = 4.95, SD = 1.07; F(1, 197) = 4.53, p = .035). Thus, the type of authenticity communicated by the brand matters for determining brand ethical perceptions.
The objective of Study 1b was twofold. First, we wanted to investigate how market offerings using indexical versus iconic authentic cues relate to a general authentic market offering without indexical or iconic authenticity cues (as a control condition). Second, to test the robustness and strengthen the external validity of our results, we featured a different product category (perfume) in the manipulations, as well as including different control variables.
Design and Procedures
We recruited 296 MTurk panelists to participate for monetary compensation (53.7% women, Mage = 40.01 years, SD = 13.19). The respondents read messages about a perfume that emphasized either its indexical or iconic authentic cues, in line with our previous manipulations. In order to see how indexical or iconic authentic cues differed from a more general authentic condition (an authentic product without indexical or iconic cues), we included a control condition describing the perfume as authentic without mentioning any indexical or iconic authentic cues (see Appendix B). After being randomly assigned to one of the three messages, the respondents indicated their perceptions of general brand authenticity (α = .95; Ewing et al., 2012), indexical authenticity (α = .76; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), iconic authenticity (α = .83; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), and CPE (α = .91; Brunk, 2012), as in Study 1a. Brand attitude and brand knowledge were controlled for. We also included product category knowledge (1 = not a lot of knowledge about perfumes and 7 = a lot of knowledge about perfumes), purchase frequency of perfumes (1 = not frequently at all and 7 = very frequently), self-closeness (measured using overlapping circles, one circle representing the respondent and one circle representing the brand such that the closer the two circles, the closer the respondent feels to the brand; 1 = not close at all and 7 = very close; Uleman et al., 2000), and perceived essence (α = .92) by means of three items on a nine-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree) including “This product contains a certain essence,” “This product embodies an essential identity,” and “There is some special quality or essence that this product embodies” (Smith et al., 2016).
We ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues versus control) as independent variable, brand attitude, brand knowledge, product category knowledge, purchase frequency, perceived essence, and self-closeness as covariates, and indexical authenticity, iconic authenticity, and general authenticity as dependent variables. As expected, the results showed a significant effect for iconic authenticity (F(2, 287) = 9.77, p < .001) and indexical authenticity (F(2, 287) = 12.39, p < .001) but not for general brand authenticity (F(2, 287) = .72, p = .488).
Post hoc tests revealed that respondents in the iconic authentic condition give higher scores on iconic authenticity (M = 3.91, SD = .67) compared to respondents in the indexical authentic condition (M = 3.56, SD = .95; p = .002) and the control condition (M = 3.52, SD = .83; p < .001), whereas the latter conditions did not differ (p = .241). Moreover, respondents in the indexical authentic condition give higher scores on indexical authenticity (M = 4.11, SD = .62) compared to respondents in the iconic authentic condition (M = 3.76, SD = .77; p < .001) and the control condition (M = 3.78, SD = .63; p < .001), whereas the latter conditions do not differ (p = .932). Hence, the manipulation was successful, as the control condition is not perceived as high on either iconic authenticity or indexical authenticity.
Finally, a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues versus control) as independent variable, brand attitude, brand knowledge, product category knowledge, purchase frequency, perceived essence, and self-closeness as covariates, and CPE as dependent variable showed a significant effect (F(2, 287) = 7.80, p = .001). Post hoc tests indicate that respondents in the indexical authentic condition perceive the brand to be more ethical (M = 5.46, SD = .97) compared to respondents in the iconic authentic condition (M = 5.09, SD = 1.10; p = .003) and in the control condition (M = 5.17, SD = .97; p < .001), whereas the latter conditions do not differ (p = .540). Hence, although there was, as expected, no difference in general authenticity between the indexical, iconic, and general authentic (control) conditions, the use of indexical authentic cues led to higher perceived brand ethicality compared to the other two conditions.
Study 2 explores a possible explanation for the unique effects of types of authenticity cues on CPE: Indexical authentic brands may be perceived as more ethical than iconic authentic brands, because the former appear to involve more effort to produce.
Pretest Design and Procedures
We recruited 98 MTurk panelists to participate in the pretest in exchange for monetary compensation (41.8% women, Mage = 38.91 years, SD = 11.26). In order to confirm the generalizability of our findings, we opted for a different product category (music album). The respondents read messages, randomly assigned, about a band’s music album that emphasized either indexical (an original first album) or iconic authentic cues (a remaster or authentic reproduction of the original album) (see Appendix C). After this, the participants indicated their perceptions of general brand authenticity (α = .89; Ewing et al., 2012), indexical authenticity (α = .77; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), and iconic authenticity (α = .84; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), with brand attitude and brand knowledge as control variables, as in the previous studies.
We ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude, brand knowledge, purchase frequency, and product expertise as covariates, and indexical authenticity, iconic authenticity, and general authenticity as dependent variables. The results confirmed that the manipulation of iconic and indexical authenticity cues was successful. Respondents who had read a message including iconic authentic cues give higher scores on iconic authenticity (M = 3.91, SD = .63) and lower scores on indexical authenticity (M = 3.58, SD = .84) compared with participants who had read a description of an indexical authentic cues product (iconic M = 3.61, SD = .74; F(1, 92) = 4.27, p = .042; indexical M = 3.93, SD = .59; F(1, 92) = 7.87, p = .006). However, as expected, we found no difference in the ratings of general brand authenticity between the iconic authenticity condition (M = 2.93, SD = 1.82) and the indexical authenticity condition (M = 2.99, SD = 1.29; F(1, 92) = .01, p = .915).
Main Study Design and Procedures
We recruited 300 MTurk panelists to participate in this study in exchange for monetary compensation (58.7% women, Mage = 39.33 years, SD = 12.02). The panelists were randomly assigned to an indexical or iconic authentic cues message about the music album that we had pretested (see Appendix C). The CPE relative to the brand (α = .92; Brunk, 2012) and brand attitude as control variable were assessed as in the previous studies. To measure participants’ perceptions of whether the band’s music album was made with effort (α = .90; Fuchs et al., 2015), we used a seven-point semantic differential scale for three items, pertaining to whether the album’s production seemed not time-intensive/time-intensive, not effortful/effortful, and not difficult/difficult.
Main Study Results
In further support of H1, we ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude as covariate, and CPE as dependent variable. Results showed that participants in the indexical authenticity cues condition perceive the brand as more ethical (M = 4.94, SD = 1.01) compared with those in the iconic authenticity cues condition (M = 4.65, SD = 1.14; F(1, 297) = 4.65, p = .032). Thus, the type of authenticity communicated by the brand matters for determining consumers’ ethical perceptions. We also found support for H2 by means of a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude as covariate, and effort as dependent variable, indicating that participants who had read about the indexical authenticity cues of the band’s album perceive it as made with more effort (M = 5.25, SD = 1.19) than those who had read about iconic authenticity cues (M = 4.02, SD = 1.74; F(1, 297) = 50.02, p < .001).
Finally, in the mediation test (see Fig. 1) (SPSS Process module, model 4; Hayes, 2018) with 10,000 bootstrap samples, the iconic versus indexical authenticity cues condition was the independent variable, the CPE of the brand the dependent variable, ‘made with effort’ a mediator, and brand attitude a covariate. The test revealed a significant indirect effect (ab = − .30, SE = .07; 95% CI = [− .45, − .18]). Thus, in support of H3, we confirmed that indexical authenticity prompts people to perceive that a product is made with more effort, which positively affects CPE of the brand.
The goal of Study 3 is to further examine the mechanism underlying our documented effect; that is, the underlying mechanism we identified through ‘made with effort’ suggests that any cue signaling effortful production may enhance perceptions of brand ethicality. As such, the inclusion of ‘made with effort’ cues may increase perceived brand ethicality, especially for iconic authentic products. We test this proposition in Study 3 by directly manipulating our proposed mechanism (‘made with effort’). In order to strengthen the generalizability of our results, we once again opted for a different product category (beer).
Design and Procedures
We recruited 722 MTurk panelists in exchange for monetary compensation (50.6% women, Mage = 40.50 years, SD = 13.06), who were randomly assigned to one of four conditions in a 2 (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) by 2 (control versus high effort) between-subjects factorial design. Indexical versus iconic authentic cues were manipulated in line with our previous studies. The amount of effort was manipulated, again in line with previous studies (Cho & Schwarz, 2008; Kruger et al., 2004), either by not communicating anything about the effort put into the development of the beer (control condition) or by communicating that it took 15 years of intensive work to develop the brand (see Appendix D). The respondents reported judgments for general brand authenticity (α = .95; Ewing et al., 2012), indexical authenticity (α = .78; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), iconic authenticity (α = .78; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), CPE (α = .90; Brunk, 2012), and ‘made with effort’ (α = .85; Fuchs et al., 2015). We controlled for brand attitude and brand knowledge.
A GLM with our authentic cues conditions (indexical versus iconic), effort condition, and their interaction as independent variables, brand attitude and brand knowledge as covariates, and indexical authenticity, iconic authenticity, general authenticity, and effort as dependent variables showed that our manipulations were successful. First, respondents in the iconic authentic cues condition give higher scores on iconic authenticity (M = 3.84, SD = .67) and lower scores on indexical authenticity (M = 3.68, SD = .75) than those in the indexical authentic cues condition (iconic M = 3.70, SD = .74; F(1, 716) = 8.06, p = .005; indexical M = 3.87, SD = 0.73; F(1, 716) = 10.84, p = .001). There is no effect of effort on either iconic (F(1, 716) = 0.36, p = .548) or indexical authenticity (F(1, 716) = .30, p =.586), and there was no interaction effect (iconic F(1, 716) = .08, p = .772; indexical F(1, 716) = 2.23, p = .135). Moreover, we find no difference in general brand authenticity between the iconic (M = 2.89, SD = 1.61) and indexical authentic cues (M = 2.92, SD = 1.63; F(1, 716) =0.06, p = .809), no effect of effort (F(1, 716) = 1.87, p = .172), and no interaction effect (F(1, 716) = 2.56, p = .110). Second, the respondents confronted with the message emphasizing the effort put into the product score higher on ‘made with effort’ (M = 5.29, SD = 1.41) compared to those in the control condition (no communication about effort) (M = 4.93, SD = 1.39; F(1, 716) = 12.53, p < .001). There is no effect of the authentic cues condition on effort (F(1, 716) = 1.36, p = .244) and no interaction effect (F(1, 716) = 2.40, p = 0.122).
Finally, we conducted a GLM with CPE as dependent variable, and our authentic cues conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues), effort condition (control versus high effort), and their interaction as independent variables. Brand knowledge and brand attitude were included in the model as covariates. This model yielded neither a main effect of authentic cues (F(1, 716) = .10, p = .750) nor a main effect of effort conditions (F(1, 716) = 2.23, p = .135). However, as expected, there is a significant interaction effect (F(1, 716) = 5.46, p = .020) (see Fig. 2). Planned comparisons (see Fig. 2) within the iconic authentic cues condition indicate that communicating about the intense effort put into the product leads to higher perceived brand ethicality (M = 5.25, SD = .91) compared to not communicating any effort (M = 5.03, SD = 1.04; F(F, 716) = 7.27, p = .007).
A similar comparison within the indexical authentic cues condition did not yield a significant difference between communicating about the intense effort (M = 5.15, SD = 1.02) and not communicating about any effort (M = 5.21, SD = 1.05; F(1, 716) = .36, p = .550). In other words, in the control condition we replicate our previously documented effect that using indexical authentic cues leads to higher perceived brand ethicality compared to using iconic authentic cues (F(1, 716) = 3.54, p = .060), whereas this difference is not found in the high effort condition (F(1, 716) = 2.02, p = .156). Hence, as expected and in line with our proposed process through perceived effort, communicating about the intense effort put into a product enhance brand ethicality when iconic authentic cues are used.
In Study 4, we further examine the mechanism underlying these effects by exploring the link between effort and ethicality. We posit that brands using indexical authentic cues would seem more ethical compared to brands using iconic authentic cues, because consumers believe the products are made with more effort, which increases their perception that the products are made with more love.
Design and Procedures
We recruited 401 MTurk panelists to participate in exchange for monetary compensation (52.6% women, Mage = 37.64 years, SD = 11.41). Study 4 is similar to Study 2, except that we add a ‘made with love’ measure. Participants were randomly assigned tothe same visual of a perfume accompanied by either iconic or indexical authentic cues, as in Study 1b (see Appendix B). They then reported their judgments of general brand authenticity (α = .97; Ewing et al., 2012), indexical authenticity (α = .81; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), iconic authenticity (α = .83; Bartsch & Zeugner-Roth, 2018), CPE (α = .91; Brunk, 2012), and ‘made with effort’ (α = .84; Fuchs et al., 2015). For the ‘made with love’ measure (α = .86; Fuchs et al., 2015), we used two items, pertaining to whether participants perceive the product to be made with love and made with passion (on a seven-point scale, 1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). We controlled for brand attitude and brand knowledge.
We ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude and brand knowledge as covariates, and indexical authenticity, iconic authenticity, and general authenticity as dependent variables. The results show that the manipulation of iconic and indexical authenticity cues is successful; respondents in the iconic authentic condition give higher scores on iconic authenticity (M = 3.80, SD = .70) and lower scores on indexical authenticity (M = 3.53, SD = .82) than those in the indexical authentic condition (iconic M = 3.37, SD = .98; F(1, 397) = 26.85, p < .001; indexical M = 4.18, SD = .73; F(1,397) = 70.95, p < .001). We find no difference in general brand authenticity between the iconic (M = 2.55, SD = 1.39) and indexical (M = 2.43, SD = 1.64; F(1, 397) = .61, p = .434) authenticity conditions.
We also ran a GLM with our conditions (indexical versus iconic authentic cues) as independent variable, brand attitude and brand knowledge as covariates, and ‘made with effort,’ ‘made with love,’ and CPE as dependent variable. The results indicated that participants in the indexical authenticity cues condition perceive the brand as more ethical (M = 5.23, SD = 1.06) compared with those in the iconic authenticity cues condition (M = 4.96, SD = 1.09; F(1, 397) = 6.37, p = .012), again confirming H1. Participants who had read about the indexical authentic product perceive the perfume as made with more effort (M = 5.30, SD = 1.32) and more love (M = 5.32, SD = 1.35) than those who had read about an iconic authentic product (effort M = 4.73, SD = 1.40; F(1, 397) = 18.03, p < .001; love M = 4.77, SD = 1.46; F(1, 397) = 15.30, p < .001).
The serial mediation test (see Fig. 3) (SPSS Process module, model 6; Hayes, 2018) with 10,000 bootstrap samples used the iconic versus indexical authentic cues condition as the independent variable, CPE as the dependent variable, ‘made with effort’ and ‘made with love’ as two serial mediators, and brand attitude and brand knowledge as covariates. We find a significant indirect effect for ‘made with love’ (ab = − .18, SE = .07; 95% CI [− .32, − .05]) but not for ‘made with effort’ (ab = − .01, SE = .02; 95% CI [− .05, .04]). More importantly, the serial indirect effect is significant (estimate = − .10, SE = .03; 95% CI [− .16, − .04]). As we predicted in H4, indexical authenticity cues lead participants to perceive that a product is made with more effort, which increases their perceptions that it has been made with more love, which positively affects their CPE of the brand, relative to iconic authenticity cues.
Across five studies and four different product categories, showcasing the generalizability of our findings, we found initial evidence for the effect of indexical versus iconic authentic cues on perceived brand ethicality, through perceptions that the products were made with effort and made with love. Study 1a established a baseline; indexical authentic cues had stronger effects on the CPE of the brand than iconic authentic cues. Study 1b compared indexical and iconic authentic cues using a general authentic cue (a control condition using neither iconic nor indexical authentic cues). Study 2 revealed that consumers perceived brands that use indexical authentic cues as more ethical, because they judged that the brand had put more effort into making the product. Study 3 further extended our proposed mechanism by manipulating effort directly and showing that the lower ethicality in the case of iconic authentic cues can be offset by the notion that intense effort went into developing the product. Study 4 showed that love mediated the effect between effort and CPE.
These findings contribute to existing research by addressing the rarely studied and distinct impacts of indexical and iconic cues of authenticity. Among this scant research, there is only one seemingly similar investigation, by Ewing et al. (2012), which examined how the two types of authentic cues (indexical and iconic) affect the perceived greenness of environmentally friendly products. Ewing et al. (2012) showed that using a biodegradable certification for a soap (indexical authentic cue) provided a more persuasive signal of its environmental friendliness than using brown cardboard packaging (iconic authentic cue). Our study differs from their work in three main respects. First, they operationalized indexical and iconic cues differently, in a way that might not map precisely onto conventional conceptualizations of authenticity types. That is, they manipulated iconic cues using what could be considered as a “cheap signal” (brown paper wrapper) that gives an impression of greenness but might seem fake/misleading and thus raise consumer skepticism. We consciously sought to ensure that our manipulation closely reflected the conceptual differences between indexical and iconic cues, as established by research into different types of authenticity (Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015; Napoli et al., 2014). That is, we manipulated indexical authenticity cues with an original version and iconic authenticity cues using an acknowledged, authentic reproduction of the original version, such that the iconic cues would not raise concerns about faking or deception and would be perceived as just as authentic as the original version. Second, we took a more holistic view of the consequences of authentic cues for a brand in relation to its perceived ethicality. Ethicality goes beyond environmental (e.g., greenness) or social actions; for our research, CPE denoted being a good market actor that respects moral norms, abides by the law, is socially responsible, avoids harm, weighs the positive and negative consequences of its behavior, and applies consequentialist and non-consequentialist evaluations. Third, we offered a more in-depth assessment by identifying the mediating roles of effort and love in the links between different types of authenticity and perceived ethicality.
We note three main theoretical contributions of our research. First, we have extended the literature on perceived ethicality by investigating its antecedents rather than its outcomes, such as positive emotions, enhanced trustworthiness, brand equity and loyalty (Iglesias et al., 2019; Sierra et al., 2017; Singh et al., 2012). There has been scant research on ethics in the field of brand management (Iglesias et al., 2019), and our study addresses the need for more research on factors contributing to perceived brand ethicality beyond environmental or social concerns, while consumers differentiate being socially responsible from being ethical (Ferrell et al., 2019). For example, consumers judge whether a firm contributes to resolving social issues (which pertains to social responsibility) separately from whether it refuses to engage in bribery (which pertains to ethicality perceptions) (Ferrell et al., 2019). Moreover, claims of environmental friendliness or participation in social initiatives might not always be perceived as signs of a firm’s genuine interest in exerting a positive impact on society (Zerbini, 2017). Customers sometimes question whether social or environmental actions by a firm are cynical ploys to obtain public relations benefits rather than a reflection of actual ethical values (Pomering & Dolnicar, 2009). In an attempt to integrate such considerations, we offer empirical insights into the determinants of CPE other than involvement in sustainability or social concerns, reflecting consumers’ overall evaluation of a firm in terms of its perceived authenticity and the authenticity of its market offerings. Thus, we provide novel findings regarding the broader antecedents of CPE for brands and firms.
Second, this article complements research on perceived authenticity by further examining the different types of authenticity cues and providing empirical evidence of how indexical and iconic authenticity cues influence brand perceptions. Whereas previous research predominantly examined the conceptualization of authenticity and its sub-dimensions, such as indexical and iconic authenticity cues (e.g., Beverland et al., 2008; Grayson & Martinec, 2004; Morhart et al., 2015), evidence of how these types of authenticity cues influence brand perceptions has been lacking (except for Ewing et al., 2012). This paper addresses this gap by investigating how CPE, as an important dimension of overall brand perceptions, results from indexical versus iconic authenticity cues, establishing that both types of cues can signal brand authenticity, although iconic authentic cues evoke weaker perceptions of brand ethicality than indexical cues. Moreover, relatively little is known about the mechanisms through which perceived brand authenticity influences product or brand perceptions (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020; Newman & Smith, 2016). In the current paper, we clarify the underlying mechanism behind our effect: Indexical authenticity cues trigger perceptions that the product was made with more effort, which enhances the perception that it was made with more love, which leads to enhanced brand ethicality perceptions.
Third, this paper contributes to the effort heuristic literature, according to which more effort invested leads to more positive evaluations of the outcome (Cho & Schwarz, 2008; Fuchs et al., 2015; Kruger et al., 2004), such that people use effort as a heuristic for quality. We link effort to brand ethicality by showing that when people perceive that a product was made with more effort, they also regard the outcome as more ethical. In addition, we confirm, through a dedicated study manipulating effort (Study 3), that using cues signaling the effort put into the process might enhance perceived ethicality. This finding is in line with research focusing on work ethics, in that someone described as hardworking tends also to be perceived as having a better moral character (Amos et al., 2019). As an additional contribution, we have identified the mechanism by which ‘made with effort’ leads to perceived ethicality. To establish the processes by which effort cues lead to relevant outcomes (a link that has not been addressed in previous research; see, e.g., Cho & Schwarz, 2008; Kruger et al., 2004), we demonstrate that an object perceived as made with effort enhances perceived ethicality through heightened perceptions that it was made with love. Using the two concepts of love and effort strengthens our contributions, allowing us to explain more clearly why effort enhances perceived ethicality (i.e., through love).
The quest for authentic and ethical brands is a cornerstone of modern marketing (Accenture Strategy, 2018); many brands aim to signal authenticity and ethical values to create competitive advantages. First, our findings suggest that managers could use the associations in the minds of their customers between authenticity cues and the perceived ethicality of brands. Second, we help marketers to determine which kinds of authentic cues can be more efficient in evoking ethicality. That is, even though both types of cues signal rather high levels of authenticity, iconic cues result in lower CPE than indexical cues. Indexical authentic cues instead kill two proverbial birds with one stone, in that they indicate authenticity and also lead to higher CPE. Therefore, brands should prefer indexical authentic cues when possible, assigning priority to communications about the original versions and first series that they offer. However, for firms that cannot make such claims, at least for all their products, our proposed mechanism suggests that managers can increase the perceived ethicality of the brand by signaling how effortful it was to make the product and/or by communicating the love which was put into the production process.
Limitations and Further Research
To highlight differences in the uses of indexical or iconic authentic cues, we tested both in relation to a single brand in each study. That is, the iconic authentic product was an authentic replication of the original version made by the same brand, not a copycat brand. This design allowed us to rule out any confounds that might stem from preexisting perceptions of different brands; for the single brands we mentioned, we controlled for brand attitude, brand knowledge, and other perceptions. Furthermore, a copycat reproduction of another brand’s product, even if authentic in some ways, is likely to evoke negative perceptions of fraud, counterfeits, or forgery, which would have tremendously negative impacts on brand ethicality perceptions. In a similar vein, as explained before, we intentionally did not use negative loaded words such as ‘reproduced,’ ‘recreated,’ or ‘imitated’ to describe the iconic authentic product in our current manipulations, as these words could already be perceived as less ethical. However, real-world marketplaces often include authentic replications of other brands’ existing products; for example, in the automotive industry, the Geely GE claimed to be reinventing the classic car, though its 2009 model shared a lot of similarities with the Rolls-Royce Phantom. It would be interesting to test our predictions with brands that produce authentic, approved reproductions of another brand’s product. Given the evidence that an exact replica of a painting is less valued if it was produced by a different artist, even with the consent of the original painter (Newman & Bloom, 2012), we anticipate that the differential influence of indexical versus iconic cues of authenticity will be even more pronounced if a brand produces an authentic reproduction of another brand’s product.
Moreover, prior conceptualizations of brand authenticity (e.g., Morhart et al., 2015) indicate that credibility (brand transparency and honesty) and integrity (moral purity and responsibility), which are closely linked to ethicality, function as dimensions of perceived brand authenticity. We also found that people often associate authenticity with ethicality. However, based on the nature of their research (i.e., structural equation modeling), Morhart et al. (2015) could not determine whether authenticity and ethicality were the same or different constructs. They showed that consumers associated brand authenticity with ethicality, linking authenticity with moral values, a notion that also appears in the literature on authentic leadership (e.g., Luthans & Avolio, 2003). With this approach, Morhart et al. (2015) identify a stronger connection between authenticity and ethicality than we do, which may be because we considered different types of authenticity cues (i.e., both types, indexical and iconic, scored similarly high on general authenticity). However, while many people, as shown by Morhart et al. 2015, may indeed consider moral principles as signs of authenticity, the leadership literature already indicates that authenticity is not always equivalent to ethicality (e.g., Avoilo & Gardner, 2005; Qu et al., 2019; Sendjaya et al., 2016); that is, people can be genuine/authentic unethical people if their behavior is in line with their negative values. Furthermore, recent research on brand authenticity (Cinelli & LeBoeuf, 2020) has shown that consumers might perceive greater authenticity in brands with an intrinsic motivation, even in the case of a cigarette brand, which would not normally be perceived by consumers as ethical. Hence, this seems to suggest that ethicality is not always part of authenticity. In a similar vein, we predicted and demonstrated that authenticity and ethicality are different constructs, such that perceived ethicality depends on the type of authenticity, and this evidence might imply that ethicality is a consequence, rather than a component, of authenticity constructs. That is, if ethicality were completely contained within authenticity, we would not find any differences in ethical perceptions resulting from indexical versus iconic authenticity cues. Moreover, the relationship between authenticity and ethicality is mediated, through ‘made with effort’ and ‘made with love,’ which seems to indicate that ethicality is not truly part of the authenticity concept but rather a consequence of it.
In conclusion, our research shows that the use of either indexical or iconic authenticity cues matters when it comes to driving ethical perceptions of a brand, and that this effect is driven by how much effort and, therefore, love has been put into creating a product.
We thank one of the anonymous reviewers for suggesting to include different control variables throughout our studies.
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We would like to thank Mario Pandelaere for his comments on earlier versions of the paper.
This research was funded by the French National Research Agency ANR-16-DUNE-0004.
Conflict of interest
The authors declared no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
We obtained informed consent from all individuals included in the study.
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Appendix A. Manipulations in Study 1a
Appendix B. Manipulations in Studies 1b and 4 (without Control Condition)
Control: General Authenticity (in Study 1b Only)
Appendix C. Manipulations in Study 2
Appendix D. Manipulations in Study 3
Indexical Authenticity: Control
Indexical Authenticity: High Effort
Iconic Authenticity: Control
Iconic Authenticity: High Effort
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de Kerviler, G., Heuvinck, N. & Gentina, E. “Make an Effort and Show Me the Love!” Effects of Indexical and Iconic Authenticity on Perceived Brand Ethicality. J Bus Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04779-3
- Perceived brand ethicality