Episode 144: Molly Rapert, Anastasia Thyroff and Sarah Grace Discuss Their Published Article

October 13 , 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by professor Molly Rapert of the University of Arkansas, professor Anastasia Thyroff of Clemson University, and Sarah Grace, senior manager of customer insights and strategy at Walmart, to discuss their published article, “The Generous Consumer: Interpersonal Generosity and Pro-Social Dispositions as Antecedents to Cause-Related Purchase Intentions.”

Their article focuses on purchase intentions and how factors such as social responsibility, empathetic concern, moral reasoning, and past helpfulness affect purchase intentions while taking into account the mediation effect of interpersonal generosity.

Listen as the “dream team” explains how the idea for this article came about and how they were able to bring it to fruition.

Episode Transcript


0:00:03.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today Molly Rapert, who is a professor here in the Walton College of Business in the area of marketing. She's been here for over a couple of decades. She also got her MBA from here before she got her PhD at the University of Memphis. And I have Anastasia Thyroff, who is a professor at Clemson University. She got her undergraduate degree at Clemson, and eventually her PhD at Arkansas, and now she's back at Clemson, which must be really nice, to be able... That doesn't usually happen to most people. And then we have Sarah Grace, who got her PhD here at the University of Arkansas, in Marketing, but she now is a senior manager, insights consulting, competitive intelligence at Walmart. So thank you all for joining me today.

0:01:21.2 Molly Rapert: We're so happy to be here, Matt, and talk about this research and also some of the relationships that are intertwined with it. So thank you.

0:01:30.7 Matt Waller: Yeah, I'm really excited about talking to you about this. When I read that you had published this, I looked it up on ResearchGate. And I was interested in it because it's a topic that's interesting, period, but the title of your article that was published... It was published in November of 2020 in the Journal of Business Research, which is an outstanding refereed peer review journal, it's called The Generous Consumer: Interpersonal Generosity and Pro-Social Dispositions as Antecedents to Cause-Related Purchase Intentions. Now that's a typical academic kind of a title, but I think that the main part of the title before the subtitle, The Generous Consumer, is interesting. And then I read your abstract and I read some of the various parts of the paper. You did a really rigorous study here and have really strong results. And basically you're looking at purchase intentions and you're looking at how things like social responsibility, empathetic concern, moral reasoning and past helpfulness affect purchase intentions, but you're also including the mediation effect of interpersonal generosity. So for those of you that are listening, we're gonna break this down so you can understand what this means, but I wanna back up and I wanna ask, how did you all get interested in doing this research?

0:03:00.0 Molly Rapert: I think it's an interesting question, Matt, and it goes back to some people that I believe you know, Richard Cole and Alan Bedford. At the time they were working at Givington's. And Givington's is a great company that had a concept long before Amazon did, that said, If you make a purchase from them, you can select the charity that you would like to donate a portion of the proceeds to go towards. But the business model was not growing as fast as they hoped, and they called me... 'Cause I've known them forever; Richard was a former student of mine. And they said, "Can you just help us talk through how we can grow this?" And my first question to them is, "Who is your target market? Who is responding to a call to contribute to a cause?" And we talked through that and we looked at the literature, and the literature all points to demographics. It might be a mom with young children, or more of a season of life or an economic state, it was all anecdotal popular business press literature. And I started thinking about the fact that I'm attracted to these things, but I'm 57. I'm not a mom of young children, I'm a mom of adult children, and yet I'm very attracted to cause-related marketing.

0:04:25.6 Molly Rapert: So, it's interesting that we circled back to interpersonal generosity, that is something that was not looked at in the marketing literature at all. Pro-social behaviors were not looked at in the marketing literature in this context, and it just was the perfect storm of having a real business problem, and being able to find the solutions to those in other areas. And that was sort of the beginning of this great relationship that I've been able to have with Anastasia and Sarah. I couldn't possibly ask for two better research partners. And I think it's fitting that the title has the word generous in it, because that describes them perfectly.

0:05:09.3 Anastasia Thyroff: So I just add to that. So I remember almost the day that Molly came into my office and was like, "Can you just make sure I'm not looking at this incorrectly? I don't think there's anything in the marketing or business literature on generosity." This is a big gap in the literature and, at the same time, you kept seeing these cause-related marketing products, advertisements, just popping up all over the place. That was really at the beginning of TOMS Shoes, which clearly ended up taking off. And in dozens, hundreds, of products coming after that. And so we are really lucky to be at the very front end of this. And Molly's clever that way, I'm so lucky to work with her. [chuckle] And we'll talk more about the data collection and the analysis, but I'll say it was right there in front of us. We didn't have to dig for anything. So anyways, we'll go into that, but it's been exciting to be on the front end of this.

0:06:11.2 Sarah Grace: And Anastasia hinted at the timeline, but she said that Molly went into her office. Anastasia and I, while we both did our PhDs at the University of Arkansas, did not overlap during that time, and so my understanding is that Molly and Anastasia actually began this project, and it rested for a little while. And then I asked Molly, "Hey, I really admire you as a researcher and a professor, and is there anything that we can work on together?" And Molly said, "There's this project." And so they were kind enough to welcome me into the group as well. And it really did just end up being... Molly calls it the Dream Team, but I was so grateful to be pulled in.

0:06:54.2 Anastasia Thyroff: You put the wind in our sails, Sarah. [chuckle]

0:07:00.3 Molly Rapert: Definitely.

0:07:00.7 Matt Waller: I know that some of the key variables in your paper to predict purchase intention, they can be categorized as pro-social behaviors. What are pro-social behaviors? Sarah Grace, I'll start with you.

0:07:16.9 Sarah Grace: So pro-social behaviors are when you make an individual decision or action that impacts those around you in a positive way, right? So I'm living my way in the life that positively impacts those around me, whether it's my immediate family or my community, it's pro-social. I'm interested to see how Molly and Anastasia define that differently.

0:07:41.1 Molly Rapert: I can define it coming out of the literature as almost identical to what Sarah said. It's a summary term for this broad category of interpersonal actions, they may manifest differently in different people, but within a given socio-cultural system where the main focus is that the action is for the benefit of others; that's the primary goal of the behavior. What I loved about this research is I think we could all picture people who get up in the morning and they are pro-social, their primary goal is helping other people, doing things for the benefit of other people. I think you live with a household of people like that, Matt. And you've also been around people who don't start their day with that as the forethought in their mind. I think that that's one thing we really liked about every aspect of this research, is we would look at it and just say, "That makes sense." And it was such a perfect marriage of common sense and what the business world needed and academia.

0:08:50.7 Matt Waller: Molly, would you mind explaining the variables in this model?

0:08:55.7 Molly Rapert: I'd love to. So this was new literature for me. It's really a mixture of sociology, psychology, even some anthropology, so the more I started jumping into it, the more it seemed to fit. But to define some of our variables along that, what they call a battery of pro-social behavior, the ones that really seem to fit with our research well, this idea of cause-related marketing, to begin would be social responsibility. And we define that as individual making consumption decisions that are based on a desire to minimize or eliminate harmful effects while maximizing what you're doing for society.

0:09:39.9 Molly Rapert: We see a lot of discussion about this with corporate social responsibility, but I think that you could also look at that at the individual level. A second pro-social behavior that we found very interesting was the idea of empathy. So, sensitivity towards and understanding of the mental states of others was of interest to us. Moral reasoning is a very interesting one; it's a stronger personal norm with respect to a moral issue, results in increased attention paid to cues or communications ultimately resulting in consumer choices. So if I'm seeing, let's say, Tacos For Life, a local company that's providing meals to families in need, and that's something that I've really been involved with or I've read about and I understand, I'm gonna pay more attention to their communication and the cues that they give me. So that's sort of the concept of moral reasoning is it's something that I'm already morally attached to. And the last one is past helpfulness. So this is a self-reported history of engaging in helpful actions, kind of an absence of being just focused on yourself.

0:11:00.4 Molly Rapert: So those four made up the battery, and we knew that we wanted to look at those, and then in the sociology and psychology work we came across generosity. And to me, that is just what brought everything together. It was something we found after we were already looking at pro-social behaviours, but this is kind of an interesting definition of generosity. We looked at interpersonal generosity, it measures the degree to which individuals attempt to enhance the well-being of others by spending their attention, time, emotion and energy. I just don't think that we could find a definition more closely aligned with what we were actively searching for in trying to figure out why people would buy a cause-related product.

0:11:52.8 Matt Waller: That is... This is really interesting, all of these variables in your research. When you think about hiring employees, I think you would want people that exhibit these things.

0:12:09.0 Molly Rapert: Hiring employees, making friendships, looking at collaborators on research projects. I think that this really helped me see things in a different way.

0:12:20.0 Matt Waller: So conceptually this makes a lot of sense. You would think that these pro-social variables like social responsibility, empathy, moral reasoning and helpfulness would lead to both interpersonal generosity and purchase intentions, and that interpersonal generosity would probably lead to purchase intentions, but, boy, I wouldn't have any idea how to go about really measuring this and doing research on this. So Anastasia, would you mind talking about the methodology?

0:12:50.8 Anastasia Thyroff: Yeah, that's such a good point. So we were really fortunate, as Molly pointed out; we found this pre-existing stream of literature in other disciplines. So even though it wasn't already in business and it wasn't in marketing, there had been these developed definitions and developed scales that we were able to borrow from, primarily as sociology, but some of the other social sciences have been using them for a while as well. So we went ahead and we developed a scale that looked at cause-related purchase intentions, so someone's desire to buy, a company that gives back in some sort of way.

0:13:33.9 Anastasia Thyroff: And when we gave the survey, we even helped them in understanding what those were. So even for our listeners there's two main types of cause-related purchases, and they're typically a traditional, "We'll give a percent of our proceeds to something." But then there's also this one-for-one model that we see growing in popularity, where you have a company like BOMBUS who donates a pair of socks for every pair of socks purchased. And so... Yeah, I thought this is a great part of their marketing. They even explained why that's important, and apparently it's the number one thing asked for in homeless shelters. They give you a real reason for why that's important. So we developed the scale that just understood to what extent does somebody want those things. And then we borrowed the scales from the other literature. We collected data with a panel of Americans. Our data set ended up being 400 people.

0:14:35.7 Anastasia Thyroff: And we had a list of predictions. We were just interested with these pro-social measures that Molly went over: The social responsibility, the empathetic concern, the moral reasoning, the past helpfulness. Were those helpful predictors of understanding who a generous person wants? And were those helpful predictors for understanding purchase intentions? Looking at the literature, looking at our own behaviors, looking at the market world around us, we predicted that there would be a positive relationship between those four types of pro-social behaviors on interpersonal generosity. So the higher someone is in past helpfulness, that skill in particular ask things like, "Have you let a neighbor borrow something of importance to you?" And things like that. And so we figured the higher those were, the higher the interpersonal generosity would be. And then we also hypothesized that the higher that those things for pro-social behaviors were, that the higher their purchase intentions would be for a cause-related product. And then we also thought that those four pro-social behaviors likely impacted personal generosity, which in return would increase purchase intentions. So we have this mediating relationship perhaps.

0:16:07.0 Matt Waller: Anastasia, could you tell us just a little bit about some of the results of your hypothesis testing?

0:16:13.8 Anastasia Thyroff: Yeah, so two of the four pro-social intention behaviors impacted purchase intentions directly. And those two were social responsibility and empathetic concern. The other two didn't. Which is not what we predicted, but moral reasoning and past helpfulness had no direct impact on purchase intentions. And you know this, Matt, with Matt and for everyone listening, it's, if it's significant, it's significant, and if it's not, it's not. But even the two that were significant, I remember thinking it was pretty close. And so they kind of squeaked by as being significant.

0:16:54.4 Anastasia Thyroff: So you count them as that. But I will say what was very clear is that the first three pro-social behaviors we talked about very strongly predicted what a generous person is, what a generous consumer is. That's really a key finding. So social responsibility, empathetic concern, and moral reasoning strongly show that it can predict toward generous consumer ends. And in return, we also found that the interpersonal generous consumer wants the cause-related products. There's a very strong significant relation between those two things, and that relationship is strongly mediated. And so to best understand who wants these purchase intentions, we can look to those pro-social behaviors to understand who a generous consumer is, and then that generous consumer wants these products. And so I'll let Sarah talk about what the big picture behind it is.

0:17:58.8 Matt Waller: So just to make sure I understand. So social responsibility and empathetic concern were the ones that directly impacted purchase intentions. So moral reasoning is kind of interesting then, because social responsibility, empathetic concern and moral reasoning did have a direct impact on interpersonal generosity, which then affects purchase intentions. So moral reasoning has an effect on purchase intentions through a mediated relationship. So that's kind of interesting. But you didn't find any negative relationships then?

0:18:33.0 Anastasia Thyroff: Not at all. And...

0:18:34.1 Matt Waller: So that's good, otherwise, it would be really confusing to know [chuckle] what was going on. But those things happen, right?

0:18:40.9 Anastasia Thyroff: It does, yeah. You sometimes don't know what you're going to get, especially when you're studying humans. We can be very unpredictable, very irrational creatures. So that was good to see that that at least, logically played out that way. Something I loved is when we dove back into the pro-social behavior literature, after we got these findings, those first three that you just hit on as being significant, are pulled from what's considered other-oriented empathy skills within the pro-social battery. And that past helpfulness that didn't end up being significant in any part of our model came from a separate section of the pro-social battery under helpfulness. And so, there's so much future research in this paper. Just rereading it, getting ready for this conversation, I got so excited about the work we have ahead of us to explore more of this. But a real overarching finding is that these other-oriented empathy skills really help us understand generous consumption and who wants these cause-related marketing products.

0:19:55.2 Matt Waller: I would think knowing that would really help from a marketing perspective, so why don't we shift gears here and talk about the implications of this research. Sarah, would you mind talking about that?

0:20:09.7 Sarah Grace: Well, as Anastasia was mentioning, really, the star of our data ended up being the mediator, which was interpersonal generosity. Maybe that's an overreach, but interpersonal generosity is what really activated those other pro-social behaviors. And so that... In use, one of the largest theoretical and managerial contributions and implications that we have here. So when you're thinking about interpersonal generosity, you're thinking about people, not just generous consumers, but people who are generous. And if you back it up and you look at this from a marketing strategy perspective, when Molly was originally working with Givington's, and she asked, "Who is your target audience?" Our understanding of the interpersonal generosity and the generous consumer, that helps answer the question of who the target is.

0:21:05.0 Sarah Grace: From a marketing strategy perspective, one of the key things that you do when you're coming up with a marketing strategy, is you do your segmentation, targeting and positioning. And by knowing who your target audience is, the generous consumer, you're able to craft a message that resonates with them, you're able to talk about your product offering in a compelling way, you're able to understand who it is that is buying your product. And so, when you're going into the marketplace in a for-profit cause-related purchase scenario, it's really important to understand that person as a generous person.

0:21:44.9 Matt Waller: Well, that's so interesting, 'cause it's funny, a lot of people study marketing and business goals, and so many of them get out and go right back to demographics alone. It's amazing how much that happens, and yet, as your research has shown so clearly, you found very strong results without demographics.

0:22:09.6 Sarah Grace: Exactly, and that is where marketing is evolving, is away from just looking at generation. For example, when we look at cause-related marketing, a lot of their popular business literature likes to talk about millennials, or now we have Gen Z and they love social justice, and they're willing to pay for that in the marketplace. And while some of those generational trends are true, what's really more important is to look at the individual behavioral characteristics. And so in this case, the generous person who's going to translate their generosity into the market place and become the generous consumer. So that's more based off of that person's identity and behavior, which is the trend for marketing strategy.

0:22:57.9 Matt Waller: Would you think that there could be... Like for example, with two different product categories, let's take refrigerated dough as one product category, and maybe health supplements as another category. So if I were a marketing person, let's suppose I owned assortment in both categories. If I found out that interpersonal generosity was more of a attribute of consumers that shop health supplements, and it was really low in refrigerated dough, could I use that to say, "Okay, maybe I should use these kinds of approaches to marketing in one category versus another. What do you think of that?

0:23:45.0 Molly Rapert: I'll say one thing that comes to mind to me is that, another area of research that the three of us are jumping into is this concept of moral grandstanding, something that we are borrowing from another field as well, that looks at what happens if a company either aligns itself with a cause and it makes no sense at all, what does that disconnect do to the consumer? Or let's say that your refrigerated dough aligns itself with Pride Month, that makes no sense for the consumer, and how does a consumer process that as compared to when Tacos 4 Life is giving a meal to a hungry family and it's closely aligned?

0:24:33.3 Molly Rapert: So we're looking at... We have several other things in the works, one is when there's not a fit, so that goes at your question about categories, is yes, I think you treat them differently and you find causes, issues, purpose that align with them. We learn that from Procter and Gamble so well, from Jim Stengel there, leading purpose-driven marketing. But then the other concept I mentioned, moral grandstanding is, does a consumer get offended when a brand attaches itself to a cause just opportunistically? Does that actually cause a decrease in sales? So we've collected data on that, and we'll be going back out into the field on that in the Fall.

0:25:19.7 Matt Waller: I'm glad you brought that up, Molly. I hadn't thought about the concept of the association with the category itself... The product itself, or service. One thing that came to my mind was, I remember hearing of a study, and I can't remember the name of the company, but they were selling diapers, I believe, in Europe. They did an experiment where they said, for every package of diapers you buy, we will give $3 towards... I don't remember what it was, fighting hunger in Africa, say, versus for every package of diapers you buy, we will give one person in Africa a meal. And the one that worked by far the best, was you buy the package, we feed someone. Does that surprise you?

0:26:06.2 Molly Rapert: Yeah, I'm not sure it surprises me. It is a different direction than the way we're going. I don't think we're looking at it in quite as micro sort of an A/B testing type of way, I think we're looking a little bit more at this macro view, but it does raise a point of another direction that we have in our future plans is really looking at that domain-specific. We've been looking at this in a very generalized way, but I think that's just the jumping off point to a very domain-specific research we could do. We also defined intentionally, to stay broad and kind of be this first attempt in this space, we define that cause-related marketing as being both that percentage goes to, or dollars toward for every purchase, as well as that one for one. Like, you buy this, and a meal goes there. You buy socks, then a pair of socks goes there. We are seeing a take off in that less traditional one-for-one, that could easily be another part of an experiment where you flush out even what cause-related marketing works best with generosity. I could easily see this... That being an extension of this research.

0:27:26.0 Matt Waller: Well, the concept of moral grandstanding is something I've never heard of, but it's a neat idea. And I think your question is so good. I would think people are sometimes offended thinking that, "Hey, I'm so stupid, I'm gonna believe that this company that has 20,000 employees, that they all think this is great," whatever the cause may be. You know it's not true.

0:28:02.6 Sarah Grace: There has to be an authentic fit between the brand and the cause. And so, even when you were giving the diaper example, I was waiting for you to say that the diaper company was going to donate diapers to women and babies, and then you threw it with food, and I was like, "Wait, as a consumer, what is the connection between diapers and a meal?" It's kind of there, but it's a stretch. And same thing with Frozen Dough supporting different causes. And so, brands really have to understand what the brand stands for in the minds of consumers, and that just means that they have to kind of manage all of those meanings and then they have to associate themselves with causes that have similar and related meanings. So it gets very metaphorical, but we're going to try to quantify that relationship as well, because a lot of consumers, it's a gut reaction. That either feels right, or it doesn't. And so that's why we need to measure it.

0:29:07.7 Matt Waller: Well, you all have... Congratulations on your publication, and congratulations on really finding a great research dream that is so timely and relevant, yet clearly builds on theory in this area. And a lot of listeners may think, "Well, why do they even care about theory?" And of course, it's because theory explains and predicts behavior and outcomes, and so it is... A good theory is very useful, and so what you all are doing is building that theory, and you're testing it with rigorous statistical and research methods. So thanks for taking time to visit with us about this, I appreciate it.

0:29:52.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C, podcast. And now, Be Epic.