Cause Marketing vs. Good Old Fashioned Philanthrophy: PR’s role in clarifying the heart of corporate giving

According to good ol’ Wikipedia (den of unchecked facts tho’ it oft may be), the first major cause marketing campaign launched in 1976, and was a collusion between Marriott Corporation and the March of Dimes. Marriott’s goal was to drive high profile PR for a massive new family resort in California, and the March of Dimes had a singular goal to improve fundraising levels. Launched in 67 cities across the country, the campaign exceeded its goals and provided tremendous benefit and visibility to both organizations.

The point of this, as with any cause marketing strategy, is to pair marketing efforts by a for-profit with the good-will associated with a non-profit for the mutual benefit of both. And while that term, mutually beneficial might perk up the ears of most PR pros, it’s important to emphasize that cause marketing is not the same as philanthropy, and that while positive press and earned media should result from a well-targeted cause strategy, it’s not – in the purest sense – bonafide “do gooding.” And it should not be dressed as such.

Cause campaigns are, essentially still about the exchange relationship. This is why they are not tax deductible endeavors. The goal is still to make money by selling whatever it is you sell using the campaign as a leverage. That said, it is evident that cause marketing is often an extremely smart and successful approach. An October 09 post on brand channel noted that Edelman’s 2009 Goodpurpose Consumer Study found that a full 57% of consumers worldwide say a brand or product earned their business because it was associated with, or supported, a good cause. After all, emotion sells – and a good cause will tug at the consumer emotions.

I buy Dove products for precisely this reason. I appreciate what Unilever is attempting to do by providing funding for self-esteem projects for teen girls as part of its long-standing Campaign for Real Beauty, and so I buy Dove soap and lotion. Cause marketing is good, solid strategy, but its not social responsibility.

Here’s the thing, however, as 2010 starts with a bang – cause marketing seems to be everywhere. Maybe it’s the recession, maybe it’s that we have a Democrat in the White House, but apparently the ad gurus are certain that consumers will be swayed by a cause approach to marketing that softens the hard sell of advertising and helps me feel really great about buying that bag of Sun Chips, watching CNN, consuming that media, whatever the product is that is being peddled.

Obviously there are problems here – saturation, and legitimate concerns of provoking an “enough already” response from consumers that could threaten the whole notion of using cause marketing … after all, once consumers smell opportunism instead of philanthropic decency, the whole game stands to be lost.

In the midst of so much kinda-do-gooding, PR pros need to balance cause marketing from the ethical expectation that organizations simply be good social citizens, which often requires engagement in social responsibility and old-fashioned giving. And it will be important for the PR leader to get the messaging right, so that consumers don’t become either immune to important cause related tactics (which really do improve society even as they help sell lightbulbs), or cynical about the real philanthropic effort your organization might decide to engage (“Oh, that’s just another advertising stunt.”) It’s terribly important, from a branding and PR perspective, not to confuse the audience with what is marketing/advertising, and what is good social citizenry. If at the end of 2010, consumers simply roll their eyes when they read a bit of news about corporate giving, charitable partnerships, or the benevolence of your CEO and assume it’s just a ploy to sell soup, you’ve got big problems because philanthropy has always been a sort of PR gold mine. It’s genuine, earned, and authentic (uck – buzz words, anyone?), and you can ride the good vibe for some time if you manage the publicity properly.

As great as cause marketing is for the top line sales goal – don’t let the marketers and the sales team muddy the perception of corporate do-gooding. Be a voice of measured, ethical, reasoned strategy, and leave it to the ad-men to find other emotion-rich ways to sell, sell, sell.

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