Monday, October 30, 2006

When marketing meets charity

Encouraging people to give money to a worthy cause is a noble thing. Companies that make donations to charity are doing good work. But I get a bit uncomfortable when the lines between charitable donations and marketing get blurred.

I will be honest about my bias here: I think that charitable work and donations are something that you do because they are good things to do. Yes, there is a personal objective too: doing good makes us feel better about ourselves. There's nothing wrong with that. But I think we need to remember the primary purpose of these activities, which is not to make ourselves feel good, but to help others.

And so I look at charity marketing tie-ins with some suspicious. Often, when you get people to make donations by buying a specific product, the amount of money that actually finds its way to the charity can start to dwindle. If it's money that was never going to get to that cause, that's okay; in the end, the charity is ahead.

But my first thought is always, "is this a gimmick or is it doing good?" (Maybe I'm just a suspicious guy...)

One example has been the proliferation of colored wristbands in the last few years that began with the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Giving money to help people with cancer by buying a little piece of plastic is fine, and I'm sure lots of money that would never have found its way to that cause wound up supporting it. Personally, I'm put off by everyone walking around wearing the things; I just think it's a bit tacky to always be saying "Look at me, I gave money!"

But what really got to me was the proliferation of knock-off wristbands for all kinds of other causes where most of the money went to someone making plastic wristbands - in the most absurd case, a "make poverty history" wristband that was being made in China by people working in slave labor conditions. Whoops!

My general feeling: go home and write a check. That's the problem with this whole approach: of the many ways we can contribute to good causes, from volunteering our time in our own communities to donating to good causes, this one asks so little of us, involves us so little in the world around us, and in the end gives relatively little back. I suppose it's better than nothing, but I'm a bit saddened to see us asking so little of ourselves.

And so I've watched the proliferation of breast cancer tie-in merchandise recently with no small degree of suspicion. And, as this item from the Mouse Print blog discusses, that suspicion may be sadly justified:

Don’t assume that the mere purchase of the product will result in a substantial contribution to breast cancer causes, or any contribution at all.  You have to read the details.

Eureka once put a sticker on their LiteSpeed vacuums proclaiming that they “will make a contribution to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation with every LiteSpeed sold.*”   According to Breast Cancer Action, their actual donation was only $1 per vacuum, and those models could sell for upwards of $200.

Sun Chips snacks sport the pink ribbon, but require you to visit their website and enter a special code from the package in order to trigger the company’s donation.  Many people might just see the breast cancer information on the package and assume that a donation is triggered by the mere purchase of the item.

Viva towels requires you to redeem a particular coupon for an additional donation to be made.

Campbell’s has put the pink ribbon on two of their soups in Kroger stores, and the cans are flying off the shelf, doubling in sales.  The donation: about 3.5 cents per can.  (All told, on sales of seven million cans, Campbell’s will donate $250,000.)  Certainly that is a substantial sum, but still only a few pennies per can.

Actually, I wouldn't call that "substantial." It's nice, I suppose, but with pink soup cans in grocery stores all over the place and Campbell putting themselves out there as the soup brand that helps you support breast cancer programs, it's peanuts.

And that's my problem with all this: these programs seem to be motivated by a company wanting to polish up its brand by looking like a great benefactor while making relatively tiny donations. (In the case of programs where the consumer has to redeem coupons or take some other action, I think the whole thing is appallingly deceptive; the makers of Sun Chips and Viva should be embarrassed by the way they've implemented this.)

I know the counterargument: if it's generating money that wouldn't have gone to a cause otherwise, is it bad? My fear is that it leaves people thinking that they've done something - and then perhaps passing up the chance later to do something more significant.

Obviously, I'm a bit conflicted about it. As marketers, I think that if we're going to step into this arena, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that what we're doing represents a significant contribution and not just an image enhancement for our brands. Otherwise, the whole exercise is hopelessly cynical.

Meanwhile, as a consumer, if you want to know what you are really contributing when you buy one of those pink products, there's the Think Before You Pink web site.

Maybe I'm too negative, and this program will encourage people to contribute to breast cancer research and care in some more substantial way. That would be a great thing. But meanwhile, each time I'm in the grocery store, I see the stacks of pink soup cans and wince a bit.

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