Often, Cause-Marketing Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

In spite of my day job, I’m not an unabashed cheerleader for all programs positioned as doing well by doing good. I know that cause-marketing efforts run the gamut from lousy and flawed to good and even transformative. 

The challenge lies in grading them. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is no objective standard for evaluating cause-marketing programs (defining cause marketing as company-backed initiatives designed to deliver both commercial and social benefits.)

Week after week, I see critics make waves in the blogosphere by slamming cause-marketing programs as evil. The reality is far more nuanced. There are few saints and few devils in this game. Part of the problem is that when value and values are mixed, there are numerous variables to assess. Even our own personal filters color those analyses. 

In 10 years of judging the Cause Marketing Halo Awards and digesting countless books, articles and speeches, I’ve witnessed well-intentioned, intelligent people come to dramatically different conclusions about programs that add Purpose to the traditional four Ps of marketing. Usually this happens because the judges are focused on different criteria. Four common examples:



Is the money going to the cause sufficient? 

There are no industry guidelines for the percentage of the sales price to be donated in a traditional transactional program nor for the ratio of resources given to the cause vs. spending to promote the program. I’ve seen judges swoon over a program that yielded a five- or six-figure sum for a cause and come down hard on campaigns that generated millions for charity. 

Quite frankly, a blanket rule of thumb for giving doesn’t work in a field that involves marketers of everything from garbage bags to gold jewelry. That means we are left to rely on our own personal smell tests – do we sense that there is an appropriate relationship between the size of the sale or the scale of the program and the good that is being done?

Is the program adequately transparent?

In a crystal-clear world, every program would clearly disclose exactly how much it is designed to yield in cause support and any associated time limits, donation caps or other extenuating circumstances. In the real world, not every program lives up to that standard, sometimes for competitive reasons or due to complexity. 

Obviously, a nontransparent program that tries to deceive consumers into thinking that it is generous is poorly conceived at best and potentially criminal at worst. But how about the Kohl’s Cause Merchandise Program which has raised more than $200 million for kids’ health and education initiatives since 2000 by donating “100% of the net profits” from plush animal and book sales? It’s not totally transparent, but the support it has provided to worthy causes speaks volumes about the integrity of the program.

Is there a strong fit between the company and cause?

In some industries, it is pretty easy to make an obvious connection between a company and a cause. Food and hunger. Women’s health and beauty products with women’s diseases or women’s empowerment. Airlines with transporting patients for treatment. Outdoor equipment makers with wildlife preservation.

But in other fields, the connections are not so obvious. Think appliances, furniture, banks, department stores, chocolate bars, beer, luxury goods, etc. In those and many other sectors, developing a meaningful linkage with a particular cause requires more analysis and creativity. Sometimes it lies in the company’s heritage.

For example, supporting small businesses might not be a great focal point for a huge multinational brewer, but it makes tremendous sense for the Boston Beer Company. Founder Jim Koch started the company in his home and had to go from bar to bar to sell his microbrew after he was turned down by traditional beer distributors. Check out Samuel Adams’ Brewing The American Dream to see the admirable job the company has done of building on that legacy to provide financial support and mentoring to start-up food and beverage businesses.

At the end of the day, when it comes to judging campaigns that are built on anything but a blindingly obvious connection, some folks will disagree on the strength of the fit. And some will reject programs out of hand because they are critical of a company’s core business (e.g., questioning whether a company that sells alcoholic beverages can be socially responsible.) Which brings us to the next issue…

Is the initiative in synch with my personal values?

When judging a program on social impact grounds, people often insert their own cause agenda into the equation. Either they are negative on the program because it supports a cause that is not one of their favorites (e.g., “Not another breast cancer program!”) or they are against the whole concept of cause marketing (e.g., “It relieves governments and corporations of their responsibilities for solving large-scale social problems…,” as social critic Mara Einstein, author of Compassion, Inc., recently wrote.)

I’d argue that those in the first camp should try to distance themselves a bit and examine the program’s impact regardless of where a particular cause falls in their hierarchy of social issues.

To those in the second camp, I say: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. By all means, take a good hard look at campaigns and critique their failings. But don’t try to shut down efforts to mix commerce and cause for mutual benefit. Wouldn’t you rather have companies encouraging consumers to join them in creating a better world than only appealing to their lusts, desires and insecurities?

1 comment about "Often, Cause-Marketing Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder ".
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  1. Sarah Kerkian from Cone, May 17, 2012 at 9:58 a.m.

    Excellent piece, David. Often the issues and criticisms arise when people try to make cause marketing formulaic, but a stand-out program is so much more art than science.

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