Walgreens Checks-in to Controversy with 4sq Cause Marketing

This is a guest post from the Center of Social Impact Communication at Georgetown University. It first appeared on their blog. I'm reprinting it here with their permission because it's an excellent case study on the trouble cause marketing can stir and how to deal with it. I faced a similar reaction when I wrote here and on The Huffington Post on JDRF's partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken. 425 comments later, people are still sending me hate e-mail!

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Last week, Walgreens kicked off a month-long social media cause campaign to donate 200,000 flu shot vouchers (worth $6M) to uninsured and underinsured individuals.  Donations are triggered by store check-ins on Foursquare and Facebook Places, and Facebook fans can vote to determine the proportion of vouchers distributed to each of five organizations (Feeding America, American Diabetes Association, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Urban League, and Americares).

The campaign draws on Walgreens’ success in engaging its fans on both social media platforms — at the time of posting, it has more than 1.18 million fans on Facebook and is the most popular drug store chain on Foursquare.

The reactions to the campaign by Walgreens’ fans have ranged from the good:

To the bad:

To the downright ugly:

Clearly, vaccines are a touchy subject.  So what does a company do when not everyone agrees with the cause it’s supporting? How does it publicly respond to the (very public, thanks to social media) haters?

Let your fans come to your defense. Walgreens has remained pretty silent throughout the debate raging on its Facebook page, aside from answering technical questions related to voting.  Instead, other fans of the drug store are posting responses.

The very best a brand can hope for are passionate “fanbassadors” who will come to your defense when others go on the attack.

Educate your employees. Likewise, your employees wield enormous power when it comes to sharing the good that your company is doing.  Share your initiatives internally beforehand, so that employees will be informed and (ideally) enthusiastic when they roll out to the broader, more skeptical, public.

Remind people of your purpose. Tell stories. Show impact.  Don’t expect to be able to convince everyone, but sometimes the greater purpose and impact your campaign is having can get lost in the hundred-comment debates.  Perhaps they’re wary of expressing too strong of an opinion, but it would be nice if Walgreens offered up a “here’s why we’re doing this and why we believe it’s important.”

Don’t shy away from engagement. Negative comments can be discouraging, but brands can’t let that deter them from continuing to engage.  In the past, some brands have opted to censor or shut down their Facebook walls when negative comments have surfaced.  Kudos to Walgreens for allowing the conversation to happen.

Not everyone is going to love the causes or issues your company chooses to support. Some will be extremely vocal in their dislike. But your fans and employees will reward campaign communications that continue to engage and demonstrate the impact you’re having.

What do you think about Walgreens’ stance? Are they avoiding the issue, taking the high road, or something else?