Corporate social responsability and loyalty in services sector/ Influencia de la responsabilidad social en la lealtad: aplicacion en el mercado de servicios.

Author:de los Salmones, Ma del Mar Garcia
  1. Introduction

    In the 60s the idea that companies had responsibilities towards their environment beyond their legal and economic obligations was advocated; the concept of social responsibility arose and several currents of study tried to give it some content and to analyse its real influence. We find ourselves in a new stage, where companies are aware of the need to act responsibly. Consequently, the analysis of widely studied marketing variables have to be reset.

    The objective of this research is to study the concept of corporate social responsibility and to verify if behaviour guided by legality, honesty and social orientation should be included as an additional variable in the study of the user's loyalty to a service. Concretely, its influence on the perception of the service quality and global image of the company is analyzed; variables that, together with switching cost, have been traditionally included in loyalty models.

    Interest in carrying out this work comes from various aspects. On the one hand, good social behaviour has proven to have an influence on image (Brown and Dacin, 1997; Sen and Bhattacharya, 2001), although these studies are only centred on corporate philanthropy. The consideration of social responsibility as a multi-dimensional concept thus limits those papers analyzing social matters only (Seifert, Morris and Bartkus, 2003). On the other hand, the lack of research on the effect of social responsibility in the consumers' segment is still evident. For instance, in the service sector there is a greater implication with consumers, therefore the perception of responsible behaviour is liable to acquire great importance and have direct consequences on the evaluation of service and perceived quality (Sureshchandar, Rajendran and Kamalanabhan, 2001).

    Finally, many conclusions have been extracted using experimental methodologies (Sen and Bhattacharya, 2001; Berens, Van Riel and Van Bruggen, 2005), although in a real context the results may vary. For this reason, in this work the methodology of surveys is used to collect direct measurements of the knowledge and opinion of consumers on the social responsibility of companies.

  2. Concept and content of socially responsible behaviour

    The creation of value within a company is related with the maintenance of responsible behaviour with all stakeholders (Clarkson, 1995); this fact implies developing honest business practices, offering safe and quality products, taking good care of employees, respecting the environment and getting involved in social causes (Esroch and Leichty, 1998). All this without forgetting that companies have economic obligations, related with being productive, obtaining profit and improving their efficiency (Carroll, 1991; Maignan, et al., 1999). These ideas are related to the philosophy of social responsibility, which leaves aside the idea that organizations should only be shareholder-oriented, to incorporate other matters in corporate strategy planning. According to Carroll (1979), companies have economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibilities with respect to all their stakeholders, and these four dimensions give shape to the structure of social responsibility.

    This model has become a reference to explain responsible behaviour (Lewin et al., 1995; Maignan et al., 1999); however, in some studies, doubts are introduced in the inclusion of economic matters (Maignan and Ferrell, 2001). Actually, Aupperle et al. (1985) observe that this dimension is inversely correlated with the remaining associations; this result leads them to consider the categories "concern for society" and "concern for economic outcome". In the same way, Garcia de los Salmones et al. (2005) verify that consumers do not include the economic dimension in the global construct of corporate social responsibility, and Bigne et al. (2006) notice that economic issues are weakly associated with corporate social responsibility practices.

    This matter is resolved with the contribution of Graafland et al. (2004). According to these authors, economic dimension is related with product merchandising. Equally, following De la Cuesta and Valor (2003), economic responsibility, from the consumer perspective, is related to train and motivate the personnel who take part in the sales process, and to innovate and improve the production process in order to offer quality products. This fact leads us to consider a "commercial responsibility" concept, leaning on the concepts of quality and perceived value, variables that are traditionally studied in marketing literature (Bloemer et al., 1999; Hellier et al., 2003).

    Concerning the inclusion of social matters, there are not many doubts on this matter. In fact, corporate social responsibility was intended on some occasions to be a one-dimensional variable, centred on the company's orientation towards society and environment (Brown and Dacin, 1997; Handelmann and Arnold, 1999). However, considering that responsible behaviour includes all moral obligations that maximize the company's positive impact on the social environment and minimize its negative one (Pride and Ferrell, 1997), it is more correct to widen the concept and regard it as multidimensional (Maignan, 2001; Graafland et al., 2004).

  3. Socially responsible behaviour in loyalty models: literary review and foundation of research hypotheses

    The purchase of some products can be risky for consumers, a fact that should encourage marketing managers to analyze the perceptions of their products and brands and the strategies used on the part of clients when it comes to buying (Perez, 2008). The same analysis must be done in order to identify the key attributes to create customer loyalty. In this sense, the first one is to define the true loyalty, differentiating on this matter two approaches: behavioural and attitudinal. The behavioural perspective considers consumers to be loyal when they rebuy the product or use a service continually (Jones et al., 2000). However, this approach has been criticized because it does not take affective issues into account. The second perspective overcomes this limitation defining loyalty as "the degree to which a customer exhibits repeat purchasing behaviour from a service provider, possesses a positive attitudinal disposition toward the provider, and considers using only this provider when a need for this service arises" (Gremler y Brown, 1996). Therefore, the role of attitude in customer loyalty is vital, since a previous positive attitude is required to consider repetitive behaviour as true loyalty (Garcia et al., 2006).

    Taking into account this second perspective, it is common to include perceived service quality, image and switching costs as independent variables in the loyalty models. On the one hand, and considering that true loyalty is based on satisfaction (Day, 1969), the global evaluation of the service offered undoubtedly holds prevalence, and there is a consensus in affirming a direct and positive relationship between both concepts (Zeithaml et al., 1996; Joneset al., 2000; Aydin et al., 2005). We link this evaluation with the perception of commercial responsibility, which includes aspects related to technical quality, interpersonal relationships (Parasuraman et al., 1988; Gronroos, 1994) and perceived value (Parasuraman et al., 1994; Zeithaml, 1988).

    Brand image is another variable with positive influence on loyalty (Selnes, 1993; Nguyen y LeBlanc, 2001; Flavian y Guinaliu, 2007). Image is an overall evaluation of the company, a subjective and intangible judgment relating to emotional connections between consumer and the brand (Rust et al., 2000). It includes feelings and associations (Barich y Kotler, 1991) and it is created as a result of a process generated by the perception of a company's concrete attributes and global impressions (Zimmer and Golden, 1998).

    Finally, together with commercial behaviour and perceived image, switching costs are liable to play an important role (De Ruyter et al., 1998; Aydin et al., 2005). They encompass any factor that makes it difficult for consumers to change their suppliers, for example the mental effort required to search for information from other alternatives (De Ruyter et al., 1998). When these barriers appear, consumers become less sensitive to levels of satisfaction when they show their loyalty towards a brand (Hauser et al., 1994). We can therefore say that:

    Hypothesis 1: The perception of the commercial responsibility of a company has a direct and positive influence on loyalty towards the service.

    Hypothesis 2: The image of a company has a direct and positive influence on loyalty towards the service.

    Hypothesis 3: The existence of switching costs has a direct and positive influence on loyalty towards the service.

    The antecedents of image become factors indirectly influencing loyalty. Firstly, experience with a company itself influences the process of image formation, and as long as consumers are satisfied with the service offered, the company image improves (Andreassen and Lindestad, 1998). Actually, one can expect that commercial responsibility will have a strong impact on consumers when forming corporate image. Each target audience will be interested in different aspects of the company activity (Fombrun, 1996), and will use different cognitive filters as well as giving more or less weight to the different attributes according to its relationship and interests with the organization (Caruana, 1997). As far as consumers are concerned, the quality of the product and service received will be key factors in image creation, since an important source in generating an impression is the shopping experience, and global evaluation is a function of that experience (Aydin et al., 2005). Therefore it is considered that:

    Hypothesis 4: The perception of the commercial responsibility of a company has a direct and positive influence on the corporate image.

    On the other hand, perceptions of social...

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