What's Better: Active or Passive Cause Marketing?

Paul and Susan recently wrote posts on alternatives to the traditional paper icons/mobiles that I often blog on.  My mobiles are printed on paper and are sold by cashiers who ask "Do you want to donate a buck to help sick child?"  Oftentimes, they are signed by shoppers and displayed in stores.  But the mobiles Paul and Susan blog on require no ask, no paper and aren't seen.  But are they also low impact and no money? Susan writes on visiting her local Whole Foods and seeing one of their checkout promotions.

They had a nice little display board inviting me to donate to the Prosperity Campaign by tearing off a coupon in the amount of $2, $5, or $10 to add to my food stack, as well as pamphlets (printed on 100% recycled paper using vegetable ink) about the Whole Planet Foundation to take home to learn more.  I am always up for these things, so grabbed a $2 coupon and laid it on my cracker box.  As the cashier was ringing it in, he gave me a big genuine smile and said, “Thanks so much for your donation!”  Had a fleeting thought I should have grabbed the $5 coupon…

I see these tear-off coupons every week at my own Whole Foods just outside of Boston.  I call these programs "passive promotions" because there is no verbal ask involved, which for most programs would be the kiss of death.  But not for Whole Foods, which raised $675k last year from their affluent and socially conscious shoppers who are happy to snap-up those $2, $5 and $10 coupons along with containers of cut-up watermelon for nine bucks.

Still, the amount Whole Foods raised is small compared to what an "active" supermarket promotion would raise.  The Triple Winner Program at Stop & Shop here in New England raises millions in just a few short months.  I also think Whole Foods' success with the passive promotion is a bit of an anomaly.  Leave a stack of mobiles near a register at just about any other store and it will be just as thick when you come back to pick up the four bucks they've raised for you.

The bottom-line is that a passive promotion is very tempting.  No hassling shoppers, who decide for themselves if they want to participate.  No employee training; these bar-coded slips ring up like any other product.  But nothing worth doing is ever easy.  And no retailer except Whole Foods ever raised any serious money for charity not asking customers for a buck at the register.

Unlike the passive promotion Susan supported, the mobile Paul discovered doesn't have an ask, isn't printed and isn't even sold at the checkout in a store.  It's sold online.  That's what MDA did with it's omnipresent Shamrock this year.  Paul clicked on a banner ad and voila he was taken to a web page where he could buy a Shamrock.  This was a great way to enhance MDA's in-store mobile program.  And while it very well may be the future of mobile sales, it's not a stand alone, it's an enhancer.  Alas, online mobiles will only make our expensive, landfill-clogging paper icon programs more visible and successful.

The lesson here is don't pitch a potential partner on either a passive promotion or an electronic mobile program, unless it also includes a traditional mobile program.  Stick to what works and what others have raised money with.  It's great to be progressive, but not when you get so far ahead of yourself you can't reap the benefits.  Remember, the 270+ supermarket chain known as Whole Foods began nearly three decades ago with just one natural foods store in Austin, Texas.