Cause Campaigns Must Benefit Brand and Greater Good

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

With all the causes marketers are shilling, it's worth asking -- is social-responsibility marketing being used as a replacement for good, solid marketing ideas? We certainly hope not.

These days, you can't get away from a cause push, as marketers from Bisquick to Quaker and Pepsi to Prilosec are out there trying to sponsor every social cause under the sun. (And we mean that literally; Prilosec's latest push is to be the "Official Sponsor of Everything," offering up about 1,000 grants worth about $1,000 each).

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with the moves toward social- responsibility marketing. In fact, well-conceived programs can be priceless, both in terms of the value they provide society and the business benefits they bestow on the corporations and brands that undertake them.

But too often we see marketers adopt causes just for the sake of having one, which often results in a mismatch between the cause's purpose and the marketer's raison d'ĂȘtre. Or, more troubling, the causes appear to be a convenient charity upon which a brand can piggyback to goose its Facebook friend count or incite some quick blogger hits. Just as consumers quickly saw through the rampant greenwashing of the past decade, brand beware: They'll see through your cause-washing, too. And even if they don't, they'll forget about you and what your brand stands for when you move onto the next shiny marketing idea.

Businesses should instead push themselves to do more, asking within their boardrooms: How can our corporate social-responsibility program be not just the replacement for a marketing campaign but a truthful, sustaining, committed approach to improving the environment and people's lives? How does this commitment embody the inherent qualities of the brand, and what kind of long-term effects will it have on brand-building as well as the greater good? To that end, the answers don't lie in an isolated part of an ad campaign or PR push.

With consumer trust in companies, CEOs -- even each other -- eroded, smart corporate social-responsibility programs can be an effective means to buy back respect and trust. But if they are done cheaply and quickly, they can be the latest nail in the trust coffin. We hope it's the former.

And we hope smart marketing ideas still matter, too.

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