The Day Cause Marketing Died

How to Keep Consumers From Getting Fed Up With Corporate Efforts

By Published on .

Mike Swenson
Mike Swenson
It was a cool and calm morning the day cause marketing died. Its demise went largely unnoticed by all the online news aggregators. The only remaining television news network, ACNBCNN, ran a feature reminding us that it had broken the news the previous year that cause marketing was doomed.

It seemed to happen so quickly. One day the marketplace was full of companies and nonprofits working together for the common good. And then it was over. The blame game is in full swing. Various theories are being debated as to what happened. But looking back, it seems clear why cause marketing died.

It wasn't a natural death. It was murder. The very people who created and nurtured cause marketing through the end of the 20th century and into this century lost control of it at some point. Cause marketing was turned over to the promotions departments of agencies and companies and morphed into something unrecognizable. Cause was no longer about unique engagements with consumers. It had become just another homogenized marketing program fighting to grab its share of the consumer dollar.

From the moment consumers awoke each day until they fell asleep at night, they were inundated with opportunities to give back every time they made a purchase. In between, regardless of what store they were in, point-of-purchase shelf talkers virtually screamed at consumers every 10 feet to buy this or that product and help this or that cause. Consumers were under siege at every checkout lane of every store they shopped to give a dollar for this or a dollar for that. With online shopping continuing to overtake old-fashioned retail, cause banner ad after cause banner ad intruded on that shopping experience as well.

How do we keep this scenario from happening? Those of us engaged in cause branding in 2010 can't conceive of its demise. But as true believers, we also must avoid being naive about practices that can erode its effectiveness as a brand builder and a vehicle for societal change. A recent unscientific poll conducted here on asked for our collective opinions about whether or not cause marketing was doomed because of overexposure to the consumer. A wide margin of those who responded said consumer fatigue was going to happen. Are they right, or were they just the usual vocal minority of people who find it easy to criticize without offering suggestions?

What I do believe consumers will grow tired of are product promotions that masquerade as cause marketing programs. Product promotions are designed to do one thing: Sell products. Simply adding a donation from the sales proceeds doesn't qualify as real cause branding anymore. Cause has to be about engaging the consumer beyond the sale of one product. Companies need to demonstrate that they care about the cause every day, not just the day of the transaction.

Likewise, nonprofits need to be mindful of the types of corporate partnerships they pursue. While the money from a purely transactional cause-marketing program may be tempting, nonprofits should make sure the partnership makes sense. Is there a natural tie between the corporation and the nonprofit, or is it forced? Will the consumer remember anything about the cause once the promotion ends? And what will the money being donated specifically fund?

When cause marketing is done well, no explanation is needed. The partnership instantly makes sense. The consumer is engaged repeatedly throughout the year. And everyone knows where the money is going and what it will accomplish. The true power and reach of cause marketing is missed if companies are simply slapping a nonprofit logo on a consumer product and thinking the consumer will remember them after the transaction is over.

The fictitious dispatch from the future at the beginning of this column should remain just that: fictitious. There are enough companies and nonprofits today that are doing it right. But with increased scrutiny from both corporate and nonprofit watchdogs, we have to make sure we are all doing it the right way all the time.

As always, the consumer will be the ultimate watchdog. The cause formula for success with consumers is very simple: Engage, don't just sell. Educate, don't just market. Find a nonprofit partner that makes sense. And if consumer donations are involved, be open and specific about what they are accomplishing.

In the end, you might just sell some more product, too.

Mike Swenson is CMO of independent agency Barkley, Kansas City, Mo. The agency's cause clients include H&R Block, Lee Jeans and the March of Dimes.
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