The Cause Marketing Dilemma

bostonstrongmerch_wide-c388df169805ca05b814101d6b7eb4a947d52b06-s40-c85I recently did an NPR interview about the rise of commercial marketing strategies in relation to raising awareness of, and funds for, social causes. The focus was on the use of the “Boston Strong” slogan following the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2014. The first T-shirts with the Boston Strong motto were designed just hours after the bombing and were sold that day. Since then, Boston Strong has been plastered on everything from fuzzy slippers to coffee mugs to promote solidarity and support the city’s efforts to rebuild and regroup after the tragedy.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear that the Boston Strong sales are going anywhere besides the bank accounts of the companies and vendors marketing what has become a Boston Strong brand. What’s more, are consumers buying into the idea that branding themselves “Boston Strong” is a meaningful way to take action? Cases like Boston Strong — and there are many, many examples across social issues and causes (think: pink ribbon or anything “green”) — illustrate a number of potential pitfalls in the use of cause marketing campaigns to encourage consumption-based philanthropy.

Potential Pitfalls

First, perhaps most obviously, cause marketing by design benefits the company first and foremost, not the charity/cause. Housed in companies’ marketing divisions, the objectives of cause marketing strategies are to increase sales, build positive public relations, and promote employee team-building through cause related enthusiasm and volunteerism. Businesses purposefully enter into cause marketing partnerships only when these conditions are met. Some companies go as far as to donate funds from these types of campaigns, but many do not and it is nearly impossible to track because companies are not required to account for them.

Second, as a result of cause marketing, people actually give less to charities. This is due in part to the fact that such promotions give the illusion that (1) consumers are selflessly contributing (rather than selfishly consuming) and (2) that something really is being done about the cause (even if there is no evidence to show that this is the case.) At a deeper level, such campaigns promote a culture of “slacktivism” (or, “armchair activism”) in which token support (buying the stuff, wearing the t-shirt, “liking” the Facebook page) is just symbolic action that stands in as a proxy for meaningful engagement or effective action.

Third, cause marketing relies on emotive advertising strategies that have the potential to send the wrong messages, trivialize the cause, or disseminate information that is inaccurate, out of context, or damaging. A recent pink ribbon campaign used fear mongering combined with infantilizing imagery, trendy optimism, and misinformation to encourage people not only to buy more products but to do the marketing for the company using social media. The company acquired free word of mouth advertising, but it was cast as a way to “raise awareness.”

Fourth, cause marketing messages often mask conflicts of interest, such as when companies promote the idea of cancer research but also manufacture, disseminate, or sell products that contain toxic or carcinogenic ingredients; Or, when a pharmaceutical company has ties to a charity but also markets its drugs to that charity’s primary audience. Companies that use nonprofits to increase their consumer base may not have the charity’s best interests at heart.

Fifth, charities are relying on business support and partnerships more than ever before, however, the more profitable cause marketing campaigns are not open to the vast majority of nonprofits, especially those that are small or lack the cache of a popular cause or brand. Given the potentially harmful effects of such promotions on the overall efficacy of consumer philanthropy, this is not necessarily a negative. Nonprofits that form deep, long-standing relationships with supporters who believe in, and are satisfied with, their work tend to have greater access to financial and other resources from the most committed advocates. But the heightened visibility, financial backing, and celebrity endorsement that also frequently accompanies cause marketing campaigns, remains a holy grail for many groups.

Advice for Consumers

Mission Match. The most basic question to ask yourself when considering a cause-related purchase (e.g., Should I buy the fuzzy slippers or the ribbon-bedazzled eggs?) is to consider whether the company has any business at all being involved in the cause. In other words, do the missions of the company and the cause align? A company that produces environmentally friendly products might mesh well with a community group focused on managing climate change, but why would the National Football League promote a cause marketing promotion focused on breast cancer rather than concussions or other sports injuries?

Company Transparency. Assuming the company/charity missions align, consumers should be able to get basic information about the company’s campaign:

  1. What is the donation amount (e.g., 50 cents per t-shirt)? Vague terms like “profits” or “proceeds” are meaningless.
  2. Does the donation require action beyond the initial purchase (e.g., log into a website, take a survey, mail a receipt, redeem a coupon, purchase another product)? Companies should not set up roadblocks to the donation.
  3. What is the cap on how much money the company will donate (e.g., $500,000 maximum donation)? Has that cap been reached? Purchases made after the cap is reached results in profit for the company and nothing for the charity.
  4. What are the dates of the promotion (e.g., April 30 to May 15, 2014)? When a company keeps selling the product after the promotion has ended, there is no donation from the sale of that product.
  5. What is the specific name of the charity or charities getting the donation? “Supports cancer research” or “supports the environment” is not specific. If you don’t know where the money goes, don’t make the purchase.

Charity Legitimacy. After answering these basic questions about the company, a savvy consumer will also think about the charity.

  1. Does the charity really exist?
  2. How much has the company donated to the charity? And this should be tracked in real time.
  3. Is the charity reputable, transparent, and accountable?
  4. Are there any conflicts of interest between the charity and the company?
  5. What will the charity do with the money? Will this action impact the “cause” efficiently and effectively?

Go to the Source. Even after assessing mission match, company transparency, and charity legitimacy, consumers would be wise to ask themselves:

Would it be better for me to give my own tax deductible contributions to the vetted organizations I support, or give a small pass-through donation from a cause-marketing promotion that benefits a company more than the cause?

At present, the answer is probably YES. There are no federally mandated guidelines for best practices when it comes to cause marketing campaigns, so it’s up to consumers to hold companies and charities accountable.

Published on Psychology Today on April 24, 2014 »

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