A Cause for Pause?

I'll join Spare Change and Citizen Brand in commenting on Inger Stole's article at PRWatch.org: "Cause-Related Marketing: Why Social Change and Corporate Profits Don’t Mix".

Like Nedra and Mike, I agree with some of what she says.  Cause marketing partnerships can be risky, and shouldn't be entered into lightly by either partner.  However, Nedra and Mike are right that Inger is too much of an alarmist and is overgeneralizing her point.

  • Cause marketing is a sales strategy.  So we shouldn't be surprised if companies avoid controversial or irrelevant nonprofits.  But Inger opines, "Imagine the impact if companies...advocated for a more equitable healthcare system" instead of raising money to, say, refurbish the Statue of Liberty.  The Statue of Liberty may not be the most deserving cause, but American Express should be commended for stepping up in '83.  Remember, Amex didn't have to do anything.  Complaining that companies should support more important causes is like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Cause marketing favors the strong.  Inger warns that nonprofits "in desperate need of funding, may venture into partnerships that are far from equal."  Please, a "desperate" nonprofit will never land a cause marketing pact.  Companies partner with nonprofits because they're credible, and "desperate" nonprofits aren't.  Also, on average, corporate dollars, including those from cause marketing partnerships, represent only 5-15% of a nonprofit's revenue stream.  For the "desperate" nonprofit, cause marketing is neither lucrative nor worth the potential compromises.  Besides...
  • Cause marketing isn't a silver bullet.  Mike at Citizen Brand says that his client, Lee Jeans, has never focused on whether or not Denim Day sells more jeans.  The same is true of the companies I've worked with.  Why?  Because companies either think it doesn't work, and do it more out of "cause" than "marketing", or they regard it as it should be: another tool to goose sales. So, if cause marketing isn't a stand-alone strategy, works best when it's tied to other forms of marketing and requires a strong nonprofit partner, why would a company waste its time exploiting a second-rate nonprofit for a doubtful payoff?   
  • Cause marketing is a boon, not doom.  Inger's worst-case scenario is actually best-case: "money-starved nonprofits might change their approaches and services rendered to become more attractive cause marketing partners."  GASP!  Imagine, nonprofits acting strategically to raise money to do good deeds instead of getting no money to do better ones.  Take a Xanax, Inger, and reread my second point.

Inger suggests that if companies really want to help, they "should pay their fair share of taxes.  Then education, health care, research and other priorities could receive greater funding, with no strings attached."  Right.  Given the choice between waiting for Uncle Sam to mail me my no-strings-attached check or cause markeing my way through Corporate America, I'll take the risk of one day having to admit that I only have myself to blame.