The Bright and Dark Sides of Product Certification: Exploring Side Effects on Consumers’ Perceptions of Non-Certified Products: An Abstract
Product certifications are of increasing relevance in consumer decision-making due to a growing consciousness for quality and ecological issues (Cho, 2015). While there is mutual consent of extant research about certifications’ positive effects on labeled products, knowledge about potential side effects on uncertified products remains scarce. With regard to extensive costs that employing a quality label can entail, portfolio-related considerations should also be considered when deciding about a brand’s overall certification strategy. Therefore, we look beyond the straightforward positive effects of product certifications by focusing on how certifying merely selected products (i.e., a partial certification strategy) affects consumers’ perceptions of unlabeled products of the same brand (i.e., bystander products).
Using a mixed methods approach, we offer new insights that reveal how consumers’ perceptions are affected in multiple ways. First, partial certification causes a direct negative reference effect on quality perceptions of the bystander, i.e., the reference frame used to assess alternatives is shifted upward due to the presence of a certified product, which impairs perceptions of non-certified products (Parducci, 1965). Second, quality perceptions of the bystander indirectly benefit from a partial certification strategy by enhanced perceptions of the certified target that spill over to the whole brand and its affiliated products (Simonin & Ruth, 1998). Third, consumers perceive it as inconsistent if brands certify only selected products of their assortment. This reduces the extent to which they know what to expect from the brand (Erdem & Swait, 1998) and raises skepticism toward its overall intentions (i.e., greenwashing motives). This negative inconsistency effect impairs quality perceptions’ of the bystander.
Further, we demonstrate how these effects differ depending on the type of certification. If consumers think that a brand can actively influence which of its products are certified (e.g., in case of organic labels), the negative inconsistency effect is significant. However, for certifications that depend on external sources’ decisions (e.g., consumer test marks; Krischik, 1998), this inconsistency effect diminishes. Also, positive spillover effects are higher for consumer test labels compared to organic labels. These differences result in more negative total effects on consumer perceptions’ of bystander products for a partial certification strategy with organic labels versus consumer test marks.
Our findings establish a differentiated understanding of underlying cognitive processes that can be used in future research to assess under which conditions’ positive effects can be enhanced and negative effects reduced in order to optimize a brand’s overall certification strategy.