I’ve often wondered why it is that companies of every size and shape, across industries and geographies take pride in differentiating their brands through supporting research on AIDS, breast cancer, and ALS, as well as charitable contributions to children’s hospitals, vaccination initiatives, and fighting malaria or tuberculosis. Yet one struggles to find any good examples of pharmaceutical brands—the largest generator of wealth within the healthcare sector—creating cause-based engagement with their customers. And no, spending media dollars on “education” before launching a drug around a disease condition does not qualify as cause-based engagement.
There are many ways to support a cause. These approaches include donating a percentage of sales to a named recipient, allowing customers to donate to a charity of their choice, creating a marketing campaign around the product with a pledge to support a cause, or by creating a philanthropy that directly manages cause-driven programs.
Some notable examples of charity at checkout
The Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals received 48% of all $1 million or more generated by charitable-donation retail campaigns. The other categories were 16% to consumers’ choice, followed by health, hunger, and social services.
The Miracle Balloon program, a charity at Sam’s Club and Walmart stores, has generated $935 million since 1987 for a network of children’s hospitals. Similarly, eBay allows sellers to contribute a portion of sales to any one of 34,000 charities, which has generated $725 million since 2003.
Cause-driven marketing campaigns that differentiate a brand
Starbucks’ annual Red Cup campaign has raised $12 million for AIDS research. Avon’s Walks to End Breast Cancer campaigns have generated over $500 million for research. Unilever and Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, and Yoplait’s Save Lids to Save Lives campaign and other breast cancer initiatives have raised over $30 million for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. In addition, Pampers One Pack=One Vaccine initiative claims to have protected 100 million women and their babies against maternal and neonatal tetanus since 2006. And many other examples abound.
Philanthropies and social cause-based movements
Hopefully, everyone still remembers the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS that raised over $100 million. The Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of $39.6 billion, has committed nearly $2 billion in grants to fight malaria and over $1.6 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The foundation also pledged to match Rotary International contributions two-to-one, up to $35 million each year through 2018. With this commitment, the two organizations together will have raised nearly $1.5 billion to fight polio since 2007.
Ultimately, the heart of the issue revolves around this question: how can product manufacturers swim in their own pond?
The real barrier of participating in cause-based engagement and brand differentiation, I believe, is a deep-rooted fear in the industry of being disliked. And when brands, just like people, are fearful of rejection, they become defensive. And yes, while it is true that the pharma industry sits at the bottom of the likability pyramid (and often grouped with tobacco and investment banking), the fact remains that it is engaged in the business of saving lives. Even if it is a business. If the fear of unlikability stops one from taking the first step, there will never be a first dance and the industry will continue to perpetuate a defensive, litigious mindset instead of seeing the business for what it is—the business of saving lives. Let us celebrate what this business could mean to people, and act in the spirit of that goodness.