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Cause-Me-to-Wretch Marketing: How Not to Change the World

Two Things You Need to Learn From This Post:
1. We will see more and more cause marketing campaigns use social media (for better and for worse).
2. The successful ones will put the cause first and the brand a distant second.

A More Detailed Exploration:
Last Thursday, Ben Kunz from asked me on Twitter:

Do you think @bmorrissey is right? Could SM (social media) cause marketing become SM (social media) pollution?

Ben and I enjoy trading contrarian opinions and I respect his perspective, so I went to check out Brian Morrissey’s post entitled “Here Come the Brand Social Marketing Bribes” about Kraft’s current marketing campaign.

It was the first time I had heard of, which is primarily a marketing site for Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese product line. If you don’t get distracted by the bowl of mac and cheese in your face, you might notice in the lower left of the website that Kraft is giving you the chance to “donate” a box of Kraft.  

When you click on the link, it congratulates you for donating your box and asks you to share what you’ve done thru Twitter and Facebook with a pre-fabricated messages that promotes the brand and the site URL. Nothing is said about the cause they’re supporting or the problem of hunger in America. It’s just a “Look at Kraft and what we’re doing!” message. To add to the hubris is the stated goal – they want to give away 1,000,000 boxes. (Say “1 million” with your best Dr. Evil voice). While that could be a worthy goal, there’s no current tally of what’s been achieved, so how will we know if the goal is reached?

I applaud Kraft for their ongoing donations of food to our country’s food banks, but I think they can and need to do better. This current attempt at a cause marketing campaign can be more accurately described as a cause-me-to-wretch marketing campaign.  Here’s why.

Cause Marketing Bubble
It seems we’re witnessing another major bubble – this time it’s the cause marketing bubble. Bubbles happen when people get swept away by a shared mania. A century ago, our ancestors were all over tulips. Now, we’re going crazy for cause marketing.

Common wisdom has it that the panacea for the current economic adversity is to align your brand/product with a worthy cause. Research shows that cause marketing leads to greater customer engagement and influences consumer decisions. It will help companies weather financial storms. And, it has even been proven to cure blindness. (Okay, maybe not.)

Here Comes Everybody (For Better or For Worse)
While most of this makes sense, the flood gates are opening with a wide variety of companies launching cause marketing campaigns using online media. Levi’s is raising money for a high school in San Francisco, Procter & Gamble’s Tide sold T-shirts as part of a social media experiment and is helping communities affected by disasters. Nautica has launched a website promoting its support of Oceana and helping to save the world’s oceans.

And, this is just the beginning. Cause marketing is the latest silver bullet, because it’s seen as a safe way to experiment with social media. Companies are banking that the public will be less critical of companies who dabble in the social media world if their efforts have some sort of cause angle.

Let’s celebrate this trend, because it’s going to create an amazing amount of learning opportunities. Many of them will be absolutely horrible failures, but some will be true innovations. Unfortunately, the horrible failures will outnumber the successes and fuel a growing weariness for those actively using social media to promote various causes. However, I think this fatigue can be avoided very easily.

The #Urdoingitwrong Litmus Test
Here’s a simple litmus test for anyone who wants to do cause marketing and not cause-me-to-wretch marketing:

Is the brand’s marketing more important, equal to, or less important than the cause you’re supporting?

If you answer anything but the third option, #urdoingitwrong. (To see the litmus test that inspired this one question test, check out Gennefer Snowfeld’s three question litmus test.)

For the examples I cited earlier, Kraft, Tide, and Nautica #urdoingitwrong.

  • Kraft explains nothing about the need to act or the non-profit they are benefiting, buries the effort in a sea of brand marketing materials, and uses social media to broadcast brand-centered messaging
  • Tide has some great elements of a potentially successful cause marketing campaign, which makes this one frustrating for me. Launching the initiative with a one-night competition that pitted social media influencers against each other to see who could sell the most t-shirts emblazoned with the Tide logo didn’t set the right tone. The ongoing impact videos have potential, but they’re buried inside an homage to the mighty Tide brand
  • Nautica has chosen a relevant cause to their brand, but they’ve buried the campaign inside a brand-centered website that makes it difficult for you to find relevant information about the cause. The videos of Oceana are beautiful and compelling, but it takes work to get them. Plus, it’s not really clear what you, the consumer, can do to help Oceana and Nautica, unless you count the “sign up to win a sweepstakes” call-to-action 

Free Advice to Salvage Your Campaigns
Stop pushing your products and branding on us. Push your causes to the front and let humility win the day for you. Forget about making sure you get the logo plastered all over the site like it’s a NASCAR event. And, please stop pushing out self-promoting tweets & Facebook status updates. You’re only making yourself look self-centered.

Only Levi’s is doing it right, even if (or maybe because) their cause might be a bit controversial. Their cause takes up the vast majority of real estate, while their logo is discretely placed and the company just has one page, which is focused on its history of support for social justice. It certainly feels like the cause takes center stage and that Levi’s is part of a broader effort.

Cause Marketing Done Right
Think of it this way: What type of person do you admire more – the guy who brags about his charitable work or the one who gives and serves humbly?

For those of you who want more, check out this “Authentic Advocacy” presentation that my colleague, Mitch Maxson, and I have been sharing across the country. In this, we lay out what we think are the best practices of cause marketing using online media.

So who do you think is doing cause marketing and who is doing cause-me-to-wretch marketing? Do you agree with my assessments?

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12 Responses to “Cause-Me-to-Wretch Marketing: How Not to Change the World”

  1. John Haydon Says:

    Shame on Kraft! They can’t sell enough of their crappy mac and cheese. So what do they do? They hold hostage a sincere conversation on how we can eliminate hunger. Very nice…

    Consumers are very smart. They see through even the thinnest veil of bull.

    Kraft is not smart. They insult their smart customers.

  2. Gennefer Snowfield Says:

    Great post and discussion, Scotty. I recently put Zemanta’s, “Blogging for a Cause” initiative through a litmus test of my own (, and they passed with flying colors because the causes they are attempting to spotlight are the primary focus, and they are simply the vehicle through which those nonprofits are getting exposure and support. So, while it IS a marketing campaign where Zemanta stands to gain new users, their brand is secondary to the causes, and will hence, receive the halo brand awareness effects of the effort. And for those users who were not familiar with their service, what better way to connect and create a positive, memorable association than being the purveyor of goodwill?

    As always, what it boils down to is *intent*. If a brand’s intent is merely to latch onto a cause for purposes of promoting themselves (as Kraft, Tide, Starbucks and many others have done) and create the illusion of consciousness, consumers will see through it very quickly. And I’m inclined to agree with @bmorrissey that such campaigns, even if they do ultimately benefit a cause, are tantamount to the next wave of social media spam because more often than not, the brand positions itself to gain disproportionately more than the causes.

    The true benefit of an *authentic* cause marketing campaign is that you help a cause in need, and through the power of your brand, are able to make a significant impact. But your brand message and promotions must take a backseat to the cause you support, which demonstrates a true commitment to giving back and serving the greater good. And if that authenticity shines through, consumers will be more likely to adopt your brand, and champion it (through purchase, product loyalty, evangelism etc).

    Consumers are demanding social responsibility, and flavor-of-the-month cause marketing campaigns and half-hearted attempts to use charities as a tactic for personal gain will ultimately push these brands further down as those with genuine intentions, aligned with a core mission of people, planet and profit in equal priority, will rise to the top.

  3. Stephanie Smirnov (@ssmirnov) Says:

    Great, provocative post, Scott. You’re quite right to point out the cause marketing bubble we’re in. Nearly every marketer on our client roster is engaged in (or wants to be engaged in) cause marketing. Those of us whose job it is to help advise marketers active in the cause space have our hands full because as you say, some cause marketing is being done poorly, for the wrong reasons, or both. I have to poke at your litmus test, though. You ask, “Is the brand’s marketing more important, equal to, or less important than the cause you’re supporting?” I disagree that the third is the only acceptable scenario. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that cause marketing is an alliance for mutual benefit: the charity partner gets money/donors/issue awareness while the marketer builds brand equity and drives sales. Everybody wins. I think the ideal role of the brand in the cause marketing framework is to be the catalyst that empowers consumers to make a difference that perhaps they couldn’t have made on their own, by making them part of a bigger mission — whether by facilitating transactional donation (think of the Pampers/UNICEF “one pack=one vaccine” campaign)or inspiring community action (Boost Mobile’s Rock Corps program is a great example). If the brand is not going to get credit, we’re no longer talking about cause marketing — we’re talking about philanthropy.

  4. sage mcgreen Says:

    Ironic that some corporate causes are wretched, while others are worthy. I think the Tyson Hunger Pledge Hype is nauseating.

    What? Some marketing campaigns are illusions to influence buyers and others have heart felt messages for GOOD? Really? Who decides the good, the bad, and the ugly? Tyson gets the *bad chicken trying to be good* button in my opinion.

    We are at the threshold of a MACRO-shift. The increase in non-profit organizations is evidence of human transformation, social values can and will transcend greed. Profit will never have a working equilibrium with the Planet. I do applaud you for thinking outside the corporate branded box. Just say NO to the logo!

  5. Don Schindler Says:

    Scott, You always sound so smart in your blog posts. I love them.

    Here’s my take on this whole thing. Let idiot marketers be idiot marketers right now. Through the Darwinian forces, they will weed themselves out. Their social media campaigns will fail. They will generate negative public relations. They will eventually have to go into some other type of work.

    Personally, I believe, that this is a crucial time for marketers. You MUST think twice about BSing. The feedback is immediate.

    This is not your grandpa’s marketing. You must be honest and sincere or you will be found out.

    Personally, I hate auto-forms and auto-spread the word tools. You want to make it easy but not too easy. Any fool can click but you definitely don’t want fools to be supporting you.

    Cause Marketing should not be a buzz word and should not be a buzz word. Just like social media marketing. You are not manipulating others – you are helping them find what they need.

  6. Scott Henderson Says:

    @johnhaydon and @gennefer – You raise very good points about authenticity and intent.

    @ssmirnov – We agree that it needs to be an equitable benefit to the non-profit and company. The point of my litmus test is in how the campaign is being positioned, not who benefits from it. Credit is not something to be claimed, it is something to be given. The two examples you shared are good examples to follow.

    @sagemcgreen – I’m willing to have an opinion on the matter and start the debate because it’s something needing to be discussed. Non-profits and corporations coming together with individuals is one of the most effective ways to enact social change.

    Corporations are not inherently evil. Non-profits are not inherently righteous. They are both flawed because they are both human systems. You and I are both greedy and selfless at the same time. We’re not on the verge of utopia, so let’s face this reality: Human problems can only be solved by humans.

    We’ll just disagree on Tyson and their efforts.

    @donschindler You’re right – learning is very messy and the feedback will be lightning quick.

  7. Peter Korchnak Says:

    Scott, the cause-marketing-with-social-media bubble is just another aspect of the social media shiny object syndrome. Everyone wants to play with the new toy though it’s not necessarily for everyone.

    Wretched campaigns will flop, sweet campaigns will raise money, and in the process we’ll all learn how not to do it and how to do it right. Here’s to a productive conversation.

  8. Scott Henderson on Cause Marketing « Cause Related Marketing Says:

    [...] He says that the most successful brands will put the cause first. [...]

  9. Ben Kunz Says:

    Scotty, what can I say? You are right. It seems brands are realizing the way into social media is to provide meaning. They have three choices:

    1. “Buy” meaning by paying bloggers to write about your brand.

    2. Convey meaning by giving something to a third-party charity.

    3. Become meaningful by making your brand relevant to the conversation.

    The first is a cheap shortcut. The second is a nice fake, but fails the real test. The third? Why, brands, you’re just going to have to earn relevance, and like wisdom, there are no shortcuts for getting it. You build it with honest effort over time.

  10. Ed Nicholson Says:

    Interesting post, Scott. Since I have a dog in the hunt, I won’t weigh in on any other brand’s efforts.
    However, I do think the next couple of years are going to be interesting. As many traditional marketing techniques lose effectiveness in a new media environment, I predict we’ll see a lot more money moving into cause marketing campaigns. Some will fail miserably as people learn to recognize authenticity.
    And (acknowledging my bias), I have to disagree with the anti-corporate sentiment expressed above. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see a world in which a multitude of nonprofits thrive solely on individual donations with no corporate support.
    I _really_ like Ben’s comment: “Why, brands, you’re just going to have to earn relevance, and like wisdom, there are no shortcuts for getting it. You build it with honest effort over time.”
    Such effort not only build credibility for the brand, it has the capacity to change corporate culture.

  11. Keeping Cause Marketers Honest | Says:

    [...] of sorts, intent on keeping cause marketers honest about their initiatives, Scott is not afraid to call out the culprits who employ it as a flavor-of-the-month tactic. Fundraising expert and cause innovator, Scott parlays [...]

  12. Cause-Me-to-Wretch Marketing: How Not to Change the World « Rally the Cause Says:

    [...] Cause-Me-to-Wretch Marketing: How Not to Change the World 2009 July 5 by scottyhendo This post was originally posted on on 5/11/2009. Comments can be viewed here. [...]

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