It was only a matter of time before it happened. In some ways I'm surprised it even took a week. It began with this tweet from fellow cause marketer Steve Drake:
White Castle is selling a hamburger and onion scented candle in their restaurants and online for ten bucks with proceeds (good luck finding out how much, but they say the promotion will raise $50,000) going to Autism Speaks. The candle has been a huge hit. It's sold out online and sales at restaurants have been brisk as well.
Shortly after Steve's tweet, Estrella Rosenberg said what a lot of us must have been thinking:
So should White Castle too be plucked clean and boiled as KFC was?
I don't think so. Despite some shortcomings, like a basic lack of information on the program and specific numbers on how much of each candle sale goes to Autism Speaks, this smelly candle is no Buckets for the Cure.
There are the important differences between the two programs.
The White Castle promotion doesn't try to cure an ill by contributing to it. It's just candle. A gross smelling one, in my opinion. But White Castle isn't trying to help those with autism by selling a product that just might contribute to their condition in the first place. While I did see a tweet or two about the connection between autism and gluten products that WC carries (or rather the gluten-free products it doesn't carry), the link isn't as offensive and distasteful as the connection between KFC and cancer.
The White Castle promotion is for loyalists. If you're not already a White Castle customer that loves the smell of hamburger and onion, how many of these candles will you buy? WC's latest cause marketing effort for Autism Speaks is for existing burger fanatics. Conversely, KFC's Buckets for the Cure with its major television and online advertising campaign is working hard to bring "pink" supporters into the chicken coop. White Castle is simply giving their most loyal customers a chance to support a good cause, and they're not asking them to eat another hamburger--and even go into one of their restaurants--to do it.
The scale is modest. As mentioned above, KFC's Buckets for the Cure is a huge promotion. White Castle's isn't. It appears that most of the candles are sold online and supplies are limited at stores. And with a goal of raising $50,000, WC's ambitions are modest compared to KFC, which hopes to raise over $8 million for Komen. Which donation will do the greatest good? It may appear KFC. But many, many millions more will be spent by cancer organizations educating consumers on preventing cancer through proper nutrition. And how many more millions in donations and partnerships will Komen lose because of the KFC fiasco? Who really did help their cause more?
The key is that White Castle maintains its distance. It doesn't connect its unhealthy food with a health cause as KFC does. Nor did WC choose to highlight its calorically dense food, as KFC did with the Double Down, the same week it promoted its involvement with a health cause.
Perhaps WC took a page from McDonald's play book. As kid I remember McDonald's raising money for charities like the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But later it wisely stepped back from directly supporting health causes and focused instead on its own charity, The Ronald McDonald House, which offers families a place to stay together when a child is receiving medical treatment.
Fast food restaurants can and should be involved with causes. It's all about fit and execution. Mike Swenson, a mentor of mine at the cause marketing consultancy Barkley in Kansas City probably summarized it best.
What do you think? Is White Castle's cause marketing really a symbol of "purity" and "strength" as its founders intended when they chose their name? Or does this promotion belong in the bucket of fast food cause marketing programs that didn't work?