Marketers Shouldn't Dominate Charities

Brands Needn't Convey Their Social Values in Every Ad

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Mara Einstein, author of the provocative "Compassion, Inc. How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help," doesn't like the idea of allowing marketers to take over the job of giving to charities as a way of selling their products.

As a former network and agency exec, she understands why they're doing it. As companies create more parity products, they have to find a way to create a point of difference. "Cause marketing is an easy way to do that," says the Queens College professor and independent marketing consultant.

Many companies slap on a pink ribbon or say, "We'll give 5¢ to charity" and hope that will do the trick, Mara notes. But it doesn't. Even so, 75% of marketers use cause marketing and 97% think it's good strategy. "My whole point in writing this book was to say, "Let's put on the brakes and look at this. It's not as great as you think.'"

There's no doubt that cause-related marketing has skyrocketed. Whether it's the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, Diet Coke's backing of "The Heart Truth" or American Express raising money to restore the Statue of Liberty, it's tough to go through a day "without some corporation tugging at your heartstrings to buy for a cause," Mara told me.

Big corporations with celebrity support "put a happy face on complex problems, and in many cases, donations aren't going where consumers think they are. And backed by big corporations, big charities set the agenda for society's most important concerns," Mara says.

Consumers are demanding this charitable approach from marketers "because we use brands as part of our identity and therefore want brands to be embedded with values we hold dear," she contends.

In her book, Mara gives Lance Armstrong's Livestrong bracelet credit for initiating social marketing's "march into the world of consumer-product branding."

The Red campaign took it a step further. "From a consumer-culture perspective, Red created a seismic shift in how we perceive philanthropy and social justice," she writes.

"Red is not a product or a company or even a charity. It's a brand—a name, a logo (the parentheses), and a mythology (it was begun by Bono to save the world). That's it. A brand like McDonald's golden arches or Nike's swoosh, slapped onto a number of high-end consumer products," so part of the price can go to the Global Fund to combat AIDS in Africa.

"There's just one problem," Mara writes. "A brand cannot be compassionate. Only people can."

Consumers assume that there is a product to immediately fulfill any need, and "this expectation is rapidly being transferred to social causes—we begin to look for short-term fixes for long-term social ills," Mara states.

Causes, she says, become a product benefit -- a means of differentiating one product from another.

But so many are in on the action that consumers are beginning to suffer from "compassion fatigue." The ultimate outcome, she warns, may be that cause campaigns "desensitize us to real problems and trivialize serious concerns.

"These campaigns become charitable wallpaper—it's there but we just don't see it. Should this trend continue, corporations may no longer see the value in cause marketing because it does not provide a point of product differentiation."

That's where Mara and I really agree. Whether it's purpose-driven marketing or cause marketing or social-responsibility marketing, it won't have much traction if everyone's doing it, especially if such tactics aren't an intrinsic part of the brand. As I said in an earlier column about purpose-driven marketing: One company's noble and uplifting pitch will not be much different from another company's, and we'll not only have parity-products but parity nobility and uplift.

I don't agree, however, on one point Mara makes.

"Companies need to create their brands around a mission, but the mission can no longer simply be about product attributes. It has to be about benefits to the world that relate to the product," she writes.

But as she herself points out, it doesn't make sense to work toward hunger relief if you're a clothing company. And even in the case of food companies or more appropriate brands playing up hunger-relief efforts, compassion fatigue will set in if all of them are doing it.

I have no doubt that people like to do business with companies they admire, but that doesn't mean that individual brands need to convey their social consciousness in every ad.

It makes sense for Tide to talk about how it helped people without power wash their clothes after Hurricane Sandy, but that can't take the place of a sustained campaign about Tide's ability to make lives easier and happier by doing its basic job.

Marketing based on old-fashioned product attributes may not be noble or uplifting. But it's what consumers want and expect from the brands they depend on.

Email Rance at rcrain@crain.com

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