(originally posted on Good Scoop May 25th, 2010)
Any successful marketing strategy brings criticism and even with its promise to “do good” cause marketing is no exception. While recent commentary attempts to redefine the meaning of cause marketing, it’s important to remember its original intent and its potential for real positive impact. First, in an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Angela Eikenberry has re-named cause marketing “consumption philanthropy” and completely missed the point by pairing the two words. Likewise, Kyle Reinson, an Asst. Professor of Communication/Journalism at St. John Fisher College wrote an article titled “Importance of Authenticity in Cause Related Marketing” and somewhat glibly chastised cause marketers and exhorted them to market ‘authentically’. What they miss is the open and obvious call to arms that is cause marketing: there are causes out there that actually need marketing.
There are generally speaking two types of ‘cause marketing’: first, causes that are directly marketed to the people who can make a difference; second, there are causes that are linked with consumer products or brands and funds are collected through a cooperative agreement. Some causes manage to reach a critical mass of awareness and benefit from both types of cause marketing. Reinson and Eikenberry both object more to the former than the latter, seeing only the product and not the cause it supports. Cause marketing begins with the cause – the need for resources, funds and awareness.
Locks of Love asks people to grow and donate their hair so that men and women undergoing cancer treatments can have wigs. The Special Olympics asks that we see and encourage the athlete in all of us. The American Kidney Fund raises money to help patients and donors with the costs of organ donation. These causes need marketing-they need trained marketing professionals who care and who can translate a basic need into a tangible reality.
It is easy to say that marketers cash in on the misery of others, or that corporations burnish their reputations by aligning with causes in a cynical bid to appear to care for the sake of the bottom line. Harder to see is how to organize and pay for a worldwide program like the Special Olympics without the input of marketers. Marketers generate brand awareness by putting a brand in front of viewers or consumers and creating brand impressions. Putting the idea of philanthropy in front of people places it in people’s minds-probably where it did not exist before in that particular formulation.
Eikenberry’s wish to go back to a traditional model of philanthropy in which a few wealthy individuals or corporations gives large gifts to a small number of recipients misses the diversity of need as well as the diversity of caring. Cause marketing empowers individuals. It provides consumers with the opportunity to add value and meaning to the money they spend and a voice to where their money goes. Consumers are aware of their purchasing power and eager to make informed and impactful decisions. No one forces a consumer to buy Oakley’s Livestrong Sunglasses or Susan G. Komen Campbell’s Soup. But by choosing those products consumers can participate in communal giving. And many consumers feel that they can contribute better collectively to many different needs in ways they could not individually. Just as most average consumers cannot afford to buy an MRI machine for a hospital, collectively they join together with the support of a third party, and do just that.
Both Reinson and Eikenberry would prefer that corporations give directly to charities, without involving their brands in the transaction. They both think that we should all go back to the days where corporations wrote big checks and called it corporate responsibility. Those days are over. It’s now time for social networks, grassroots movements and incremental giving.
When Reinson equated the products of late capitalistic conspicuous consumption with the real needs that individuals and organizations have for health, education, or opportunity, he did his argument and cause marketers a sad disservice. To equate the need for cancer drugs, or clean air or school supplies with knick-knacky product worship is to miss the point entirely. When a corporation like the Hair Cuttery donates a free hair cut to a child in need for every child’s haircut purchased, they are not just improving their own image and bottom line. They are improving the self-image and self esteem of a child in their community.
Similarly Eikenberry laments the growth of what she calls consumption philanthropy assuming that it comes at the expense of larger, more meaningful giving. She assumes that civic engagement is removed from the equation by adding a product endorsement or product tie to a cause. What she misses in the act of communal giving is the action of creating community. Contributing allows consumers to join together in support of a cause. It allows colleagues to work side by side for charitable or philanthropic reasons. And when people appreciate those who work around them, they work together better. They are building a community. Communal giving builds communities where communities did not exist before.
People don’t have much to spend in this economy. What they do spend, they want to give out responsibly. If a consumer can make a small difference in the world while purchasing something she wants or needs anyway, even better. Product sales that support causes and incremental fundraising efforts afford people that opportunity. Can Eikenberry really say that there are some types of philanthropic impulses that are better than others? Or that one way of building awareness and community is more valid than another approach? Of course there are good marketers and bad marketers, and Reinson and Eikenberry are right to be suspicious of mega-corporations. Recent experiences with ‘greenwashing’ and ‘pinkwashing’ have taught the world that lesson. And yet real problems remain to be solved.
When charitable giving is sharply down, providing average income individuals (and let’s face it – that’s most of us) with a way to give that is within their means seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, if corporations forget that their efforts need to be tied to actual cause movements — events, activities and non-profits that are truly mission-driven by roll-up-the-sleeve types that ARE making a difference — then we have a problem. Obviously, companies have to deliver on their consumer promises. Cause-related marketing campaigns have to be about real people and real issues and what’s actually happening to address their needs.
One thing to keep in mind about corporations large and small-none are required to give anything to anybody. Corporations and businesses exist to make money-some give back to their communities and markets and consumers while others do not. That corporations and businesses want to give anything back at all should be a cause for celebration, not suspicion. Authenticity and transparency are the two things that will make cause marketing an integral part of every business strategy of the future. If companies can accomplish these two things, then corporations supporting cause brands will be perceived as genuine and they can show the world how they are investing in what matters to people — and build strong brands that sell, and create a positive social impact.