According to a new study by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, chief marketing officers distracted by the downturn are placing less emphasis on cause-related and environmental issues. In fact, marketing that is "beneficial for society" or that minimizes the impact on the environment ranked at the bottom of five priorities listed by respondents for the next 12 months.
Ms. Moorman said that CMOs who had the most pessimistic outlook on the economy and their own prospects for retaining customers assigned the lowest priority to cause and environmental efforts. Ranking ahead of those goals were developing customer insights, sharing marketing knowledge and preparing for marketing crises.
While marketers of consumer products in the survey gave cause marketing and environmental marketing higher priorities than marketers in other sectors, even they ranked those things below insight development and knowledge sharing.
The results don't come as a shock to Donna Goldfarb, VP-consumer and market insights for Unilever Americas. "There's a hierarchy of needs, and if people are struggling to buy food or put their kids through college, they're going to see [green or cause-related appeals] as a nice thing to do, but not essential." Unilever hasn't dropped its cause-related marketing for Dove, continuing to run ads and schedule events behind the "Campaign for Real Beauty" of late. But it's also focused more squarely on the product with its most recent campaign for the new Dove Go Fresh line.
In an e-mail, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Co. said the company isn't moving away from its cause-related efforts, despite the recent announcement that Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel, a big backer of the approach, is leaving.
Seventh Generation, marketer of green household-products, is also still bullish, noting that its sales are up more than 50% year to date, despite the economy and well-funded competition from the likes of Clorox GreenWorks. "We're still thinking [this market] is expandable for us and others," said Carter Elenz, exec VP-sales and marketing, noting that the brand is increasing its spending to its highest levels ever (albeit to a relatively modest $1 million in the fourth quarter).
But at the same time, some backers of sustainability efforts or "marketing with meaning" appear to be soft-pedaling their efforts or girding for a time when such messages pack less punch.
For example, Wal-Mart Stores, which made sustainability a central feature of its communications strategy in recent years, is talking about it less often lately. An analysis of news stories on LexisNexis shows an average of 73 stories monthly featuring Wal-Mart and "sustainability" in the past year but only 37 in the past month. Environmental or sustainability themes had found their way into only 12 Wal-Mart press releases through Sept. 11 of this year (and none since June), compared with 29 during the same period last year.
And when Wal-Mart launched a new campaign targeting opinion leaders around the political conventions last month, the message was about how the company is stimulating the economy by saving people money, with none of the sustainability themes that have been common in such ads in years past.
Wal-Mart executives haven't lost all their interest in sustainability, said one supplier rep, "but I'm not hearing about it nearly as often."
WPP Group's digital and relationship-marketing shop Bridge Worldwide, Cincinnati, which has made "marketing with meaning" its mantra in recent years, isn't seeing clients or prospects back off from marketing that adds value to people's lives just yet. "But logically, I can see how that would be a gut reaction," said Chief Marketing Strategist Bob Gilbreath. "If you lose your job, you're not volunteering for things. You've got to find a new job."
The "meaning" could start to shift, he said, as more marketers add value to their messages the old-fashioned way: through discounts.
Mr. Gilbreath said in the early 1990s, green marketing peaked for the last time when the economy turned south, which could happen again now.
Even so, cause marketing "is still what will get the news" for marketers, thus stretching their investments, he said. "Your coupon isn't something reporters or the 'Today' show are going to want to talk about."