The end of Cause Marketing

Aug 23, 2010 3:50 PM ET

Paul's Blog for Canadian Business Online

I just came across a great article in Ad Age by Mike Swenson called The Day Cause Marketing Died. While the headline is intended as a fictitious dispatch from the future, the article points out what we’re already starting to see: marketers who believe that designating a portion of sales proceeds to a charity constitutes a “partnership” that is resulting in real social change.

As Swenson points out, “Simply adding a donation from the sales proceeds doesn’t qualify as real cause branding anymore. Cause has to be about engaging the consumer beyond the sale of one product. Companies need to demonstrate that they care about the cause every day, not just the day of the transaction.” Marketers also need to know that they’re not fooling anyone. Today, consumers are too smart not to see cause promotions for what they really are: another way of selling more stuff (to paraphrase George Carlin).

Fundamentally, business is embodied by transactions. It’s measures of success are simple: the number and rate of products, services, and money that move between the company and it’s customers. The more the better. And, the faster the better. Not surprisingly, marketers have added a social dimension to these transactions and call this cause marketing.

Social change, however, involves transformation: a long term commitment to making a qualitative difference to an issue or “cause”. Needless to say, transformation is at odds with the metrics of business. Simply put, it’s easy to measure transactions and difficult to measure transformation. If your performance and compensation as a marketer (internally or in an agency) is measured by the numbers, it’s easy to see why cause marketing makes sense.

My hope is that cause marketing dies out sooner rather than later. Corporations need the courage to make long term commitments to issues that employees and customers care about. They need to have a social purpose in addition to a business mandate. And they need to know that transformation takes longer but has a much bigger ROI than cause marketing as we’ve come to know it. (See an article I wrote for Ad Age in July called Return on Integrity is the New Bottom Line for Marketers)

What corporations have the courage and vision to be agents of long term social change? In what ways will the metrics of business change as needed to measure the growing importance of emerging KPI’s such as values, integrity, and quality of life? What will partnerships between corporations and non-profits look like after cause marketing dies out?

Stay tuned and have a great week!


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