I’ve watched and listened to the growing debate social media has reinvigorated about the term “cause marketing.” In particular, the term “social media for social good” has been called into question. At the heart of the matter as raised by Beth Kanter is how far companies can go before they demean the nonprofit brand in their efforts to appear (or actually become) “responsible.”
The social media aspect of this debate is only relevant in that it makes partnering and co-branding as easy as a click or retweet. What is important is the increase ease of co-opting a brand into somewhate questionable activity, such as the recent Tide T Shirt campaign
to brand Tide, oops, I meant to benefit charity :)
The term cause marketing is often blurred by nonprofits in an effort to keep their perceived integrity. Some draw the line at the point where they receive cash, others at services. Other say the line begins as soon as the wolf is the hen house.
I subscribe to the wolf theory. As someone who has extensive experience in both corporate and nonprofit marketing on the agency side, and as someone who got their start writing journals for nonprofit trade associations, let me be frank: Companies rarely lend their brand or resources to a nonprofit unless they gain something from it.
That’s true whether its karmic do good efforts — the heart of what companies should be doing to be perceived social responsible — to flat out branding. Some companies go so far as to charge their customers and serve as a middleperson between from the consumer to the cause. Whether or not cash exchanges hands is irrelevant. Altruism is a very rare thing in corporate cause marketing.
Nonprofits who say balk at this remind me of a someone who goes on a date then says it wasn’t a date because a kiss wasn’t exchanged. OK, then… Denial is not a river in Egypt.
The nonprofit sector organization that bemoans the demeaning nature of cause marketing and, perhaps its affect on their own brand, needs to look at its choices. Companies will be companies. Some are good, some are not. For every PNC Bank, there’s an AIG. Some understand proper cause marketing and social responsibility, some do not.
The nonprofit sector should take responsibility for who it chooses to partner with and why (hat tip: Allison Fine, lecture, Georgetown University on March 31, 2009). The stresses of fundraising and marshaling resources — even in an economy like this one — do not justify shunning off responsibility for cause marketing sliminess and failures. Nonprofit organizations that don’t organize intelligent programs that manage their brands as well as attract donors risk losing face.
Using another metaphor, if one has a business partner whose behavior is less than appealing, dishonest, fails to fulfill obligations, or even competes in breach of legal contracts etc., one cannot simply blame them. Instead one must ask themselves why they chose company/person X as a business partner. Realize the other party’s behavior can serve as a mirror into one’s own business practices, whether similar in nature, or naive or inexperienced. There’s a lesson to be learned.
My point: The cause marketing questions of late have as much to do with the causes as the companies. It takes two to tango, and acknowledging that will only hasten better practices.