Apr
06
2011

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Is it just me, or does there seem to be a rash of natural disasters in recent years, that have devastated huge parts of the world, leaving communities in desperate need of external help and aid to recover and rebuild?

Now, weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we are still seeing many people and businesses from around the world pledging to contribute help. Of course, most notable are the commitments from celebrities and businesses, who often publicly announce their commitments. As heartening as it is to see the gestures and their contributions, it begs the question, just how much are we really helping? And how much of it is to help their image versus the cause?

Based on the US Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center’s Corporate Aid Tracker, global businesses have pledged over $241 million to the recent Japan disaster recover effort. The Center also provides a list that compares business aid for past disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (Aug/Sept 2005) totaling $1.08 billion from the corporate sector; the Indian Ocean Tsunami (Dec 2004) received $566 million in support; and the Haitian Earthquake (Jan 2010) totaled $146.8 million. 

With such large dollars at stake, it only makes sense that the public (and stakeholders) want to make sure those dollars are making a difference. Recently, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Emily Steel, Cause-Related Marketing Requires Care, questioning whether companies and celebrities are exploiting tragedies like the Japan disaster with their cause marketing, especially in light of some poorly thought out cause-marketing campaigns.

The article cites Microsoft Bing’s misstep as a notable one, where Bing declared on Twitter it would donate $1 to Japan’s relief efforts each time someone retweeted the post up to $100,000. Although many retweeted the message, there were also many who strongly criticized the campaign on Twitter, calling it distasteful, a marketing opportunity and noting it as an #epicfail. This led Bing to post an apology just hours after their initial tweet, indicating they have donated the $100,000.

This incident reminds me of one of last year’s most highly criticized cause marketing campaigns – Susan G. Komen For the Cure and Kentucky Fried Chicken's partnership in the “Buckets for the Cure” campaign. KFC pledged to donate 50 cents to the Susan G. Komen up to $8 million for each bucket sold. This would would have been the single largest donation amount to the organization if successful, but a firestorm of criticism ensued, claiming a mismatch of cause and corporation, since eating fried food can be thought to lead to cancer.

What to make of all this, and what does it mean for businesses wanting to do good by partnering with causes? On the one hand, companies surely benefit from cause marketing efforts. One consumer behavior study conducted by Cone showed "cause-related marketing can exponentially increase sales, in one case as much as 74 percent, resulting in millions of dollars in potential revenue for brands." And, the cause or nonprofit organization obviously benefits from the dollars raised through the campaigns and branding.

But, does going at it the wrong way, such as in these examples, end up causing more harm than good for both the corporation or big brand and the nonprofit or cause?

The WSJ article mentioned earlier includes these thoughts from an ad expert (Mr. Adamson): “As relief efforts continue, companies' motives are likely to be less altruistic... The first people that do it probably have their heart and head in the right place... But as you go further along, more people try to jump on the band wagon. Doing good becomes less substantial and more of an attention grab.”

Looking at it from the lens of lessons learned, cause branding expert, Chris Noble of Causemedia Group says, "We shouldn't shun these companies for trying, but taking the wrong approach. It will only turn them off to the concept of cause-related work and the good that can be accomplished will never be realized. They need guidance, not just criticism."

In a post I wrote a while back on the Social Citizens blog, Has Do-Gooding Gone Mainstream, I had questioned whether the popularization of doing good by celebrities, media and big brands, and the ease of getting involved through social media, meant less focus on impact. And, what can the nonprofit sector do to ensure the popularization and mainstreaming of doing good does lead to real change. Now, I'm asking, what can business and those who broker the relationships between brands and causes also do to ensure cause branding really does GOOD.

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