In January 2011, Maryam Kouchaki walked out of a local Starbucks with her usual: a steaming-hot vanilla latte. But the cup struck her as unusual, and made such an impression that a version of it still sits on a shelf in her home office. It reads: “YOU. BOUGHT 228 MILLION POUNDS OF RESPONSIBLY GROWN, ETHICALLY TRADED COFFEE LAST YEAR. … Way to go, you.”

Messages such as this one—that imply that a customer has done something eco-friendly or charitable by buying a specific brand—are increasingly common. Praising a customer in these ways is thought to increase consumer loyalty and improve a company’s image. And of course, it makes us customers feel good about our actions.

But to Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, the cup triggered a research question: Does telling a person they are helping the environment or another social cause actually help those causes? Or might it somehow do the opposite?

Along with Ata Jami, at the University of Central Florida, Kouchaki set out to understand whether the phrasing of such messages subtly influences how consumers behave in the future.

“We were not interested in people’s perception of the brand,” Kouchaki says. “We were asking, ‘What’s the effect of a message like that on a consumer’s behavior in subsequent, unrelated situations?’”

Customer Praise vs. Company Praise

More and more companies support social or environmental causes, spending billions of dollars annually to do so. A decade ago, only a few companies issued a CSR or sustainability report; now most do. Studies show that it is beneficial for brands to inform customers of their support for these causes.

“There are situations where good behaviors license [people] to do something bad or questionable.”

Yet the effects on customers are less clear. In previous research, Kouchaki found that simply telling people their group has done something good can make them feel licensed to do something less altruistic later. Might, say, a message of praise on a coffee cup elicit a similar “moral licensing” effect?

In several experiments, Kouchaki and Jami recruited online or student participants and asked them to view ads or messages that either praised a customer for making an ethical purchase or ones that praised the company for its ethical business practices. Much like Kouchaki’s latte cup, the customer-praise ads used phrasing such as, “You are saving the planet by choosing fair-trade coffee.” The company-praise messages used phrasing such as, “We only use fair-trade coffee. Thank you for supporting our efforts.”

After viewing the messages, people were asked to make hypothetical choices about unrelated products. These choices required participants to emphasize one value or mindset over another: choosing between eco-friendly batteries and thrifty ones, for instance, or between the self-indulgence of designer jeans and the practicality of a vacuum cleaner.

In all cases, people made more selfish or self-indulgent decisions after seeing a message that praised them for a good choice. For example, 67 percent of participants who viewed the Starbucks “Everything you do, we do” message picked batteries that gave them more value for their money over eco-friendly ones. But among those who watched a video praising the company, only 30 percent chose the thrifty one over the greener choice.

But these were hypothetical decisions. Would they transfer to the real world?

To find out, researchers studied 200 volunteers for a charitable organization. These volunteers received one of two versions of an email from the organization’s director. One email praised the volunteer’s individual efforts on behalf of the organization, and the second praised the group of volunteers as a whole for their work. At the end of the email, volunteers could click through to claim a gift of either a luxury backpack or a utility travel bag.

As expected, the self-praise message prompted a more self-indulgent choice. Eighty-four percent of volunteers who received the self-praise message chose the luxury backpack, while only 64 percent of those who received the group message did so.

A luxury backpack might not be a problematic choice, but taken together the results show that people are more willing to act selfishly, such as allocating less money to others, after being praised for their good behavior.

“Intuitively we expect that when someone does something good, then they are going to be consistent and engage in good behavior again,” Kouchaki says. “But there are situations where good behaviors license them to do something bad or questionable.”

Feel-good Fallout

To understand why these messages seemed to promote unexpected choices, the researchers asked another set of participants recruited online to rate themselves on a 7-point scale for traits such as compassion, generosity, and environmental friendliness. Beforehand, some participants viewed a message from an ostensibly real CEO praising customers for their recycling efforts, while others saw no praise message.

Individuals in the two groups rated themselves similarly on many traits. But those who received the customer-praise message ranked themselves higher for eco-friendliness—the trait they had just been applauded for—than those who were not praised.

“When people are praised for being eco-friendly, they see themselves that way,” Kouchaki says. “There is a boost to their self-concept. And that temporary boost is responsible for their subsequent behavior.” In other words, when people felt like they had already done their good, eco-friendly deed for the day, they were more likely to slack off in their next decision.

But how much of a boost an individual felt was also dependent on how eco-conscious they were to begin with. “People have different values,” Kouchaki says. “It is naïve to assume that everyone is going to be influenced the same way.”

So, in another experiment, the duo assigned each participant a “green factor,” measured by the importance they attached to various eco-friendly activities. The researchers then showed participants a customer-praise message and had them play a game where they got to decide how much of $20 they would give to someone else.

For participants who were already environmentally conscious, being praised made little difference: they did not behave more selfishly on a subsequent task. But those who were less eco-friendly responded more strongly—and selfishly—to customer praise by keeping more of the $20 for themselves.

A person who is already eco-conscious and engages in green behaviors might be less affected by praise, Kouchaki explains. But, she adds, “for people who feel really good about what they have done because it is not something they usually do, the praise gives them this moral license to be less altruistic later.”

Future Phrasing

Kouchaki also suspects another psychological factor may be at work: when people are told they have made progress towards a goal, they are likely to slack off in their efforts. “These messages are implying progress rather than commitment, so people might feel like what they have done is already enough,” she says.

The researchers plan to follow up on these findings with more varied, real-life situations. But the evidence thus far is clear: how a customer is praised matters.

“We are not advocating to not praise customers at all,” Kouchaki says. “But how you frame your messages makes a difference.”

Phrasing that includes both customers and the company itself—using “we” rather than “you” messages—can promote a cause while also preventing contradictory behavior in unrelated future situations.

“Given the rise in these messages of environmental and social activism, we should think about the unintended effects of how we say things,” Kouchaki says. “Maybe a particular message is good for your brand, but in the long run, we need to make sure that what we do actually advances the greater good.”