Let's Get Rid of the Heresy in Cause Marketing

It seems only fitting that in October we expose a few witches, a few frauds, to redeem cause marketing--especially during this month of "pink" when scams abound. But unlike my foreparents in Salem let's be sure we're condemning the right heretics.

That's why I think Tim Ogden's rating system for cause marketing programs could be the beginning of much needed standards for businesses and causes to follow and for consumers to use when they evaluate campaigns.

Like all of us, Tim's tired of programs that are more like gimmicks, and he has proposed a 5-star standard for cause promotions.

Tim's goal isn't to turn these cause promotions into better programs. Oh, no. These are sinners in the hands of an angry God. "Any program that doesn’t meet all of these standards should be shunned" (although Tim admits this isn't quite realistic).

Nevertheless, Tim means business. So do I.

First Standard: The program says exactly what charity will receive the funds, with enough information for a person to find and investigate the charity on their own.

This is what we all want. There's nothing worse than supporting a cause and then reading "A portion of the proceeds from this products will support cancer research." Really, which organizations?

Second Standard:The program says exactly how much money the charity will receive (either in total or from each purchase with a projection of the total and any minimum or maximums built-in.) Note that percentages, especially such nebulous percentages as “2% of the profits”, do not meet this standard. Tell me the money.

The program has to be transparent and tangible. Yes, and get rid of the "X% of the profits." Tell me in plain English what the donation will be! A penny? A dime? A buck for each item sold? Or will a flat donation of $X be made at the end of the program?

Third Standard: The program says when the charity will receive the funds.

Great suggestion for disclosure, but this can be tricky. I suspect a lot of the bigger causes already have dates for when funds are due in their contracts with partners, but I admit I usually don't. But I think having an "expiration date" for the promotion shows consumers that you are committed to ethical, transparent and impactful giving.

Fourth Standard:The program says what the funds will be used for or if there are any restrictions on the use of funds. This is especially important when brands link up to very large charities that do lots of things in lots of places (e.g. Save the Children, United Way, World Wildlife Fund). This star isn’t about the good or bad of restricted funds, it’s just asking for full disclosure on the terms of the funds and what they will be used for.

Will the money be unrestricted (can be used for anything the cause chooses) or restricted (limited to a specific program or type of expenditure, like food or medicine).  This is good information for the donor to know.

Fifth Standard:The program says why the charity was chosen. I don’t expect any program to meet this criteria, but I think its important to push corporations with charitable programs to using the resources at their disposal to help the general public find good charities. Corporations invest millions of dollars in these cause marketing campaigns. The least they could do is spend some of that money doing due diligence on the charities and telling the public what they find.

I don't disagree with Tim on this, but I'm not sure it belongs as a standard. I think good cause marketing programs are nuts NOT to include this storytelling component. I'm not sure it should appear on the tag of a cause product, but it should be somewhere. It seems less like a standard and more like a reminder--one that partners would be foolish to forget.

I like every one of these standards so I decided to put them to the test with my most recent cause marketing program.

Here's what I came up with for a rating.

Standard 1: Plenty of information here on us and The Kids Fund, the program within the hospital that the funds will support. But we didn't include a web site so consumers could get more information. Bad, Joe. ¾ Star

Standard 2: Nope, nothing. We thank shoppers for their support, but never specifically say that 100% goes to The Kids Fund. I think point-of-sale is different in that people expect all the money to go to the cause because there is no product involved. But that's not enough. We should tell them and assume nothing. ¼ Star

Standard 3: No mention of when my charity will receive the funds. Rats. No Star

Standard 4: Yes, the pinup says what the funds will be used for: a variety of necessity items from eyeglasses to home medical equipment for the hospital's pediatric patients. It goes on to mention other programs the funds will supprot. Gold Star

Standard 5: No, the pinup doesn't say why the charity was chosen, but iParty, the retailer involved, has a longstanding commitment to our cause and has gone to great lengths to share with their employees and customers why they support my organization. Star

Total Score: 3/5 Stars

Clearly we have some work to do--sadly, I'm unsure if Tim will talk to me if we ever happen to meet--but at least I know what the expectations are. That's why an easy, common sense cause marketing rating systems like Tim's is so useful.

What do you think of Tim's standards? What would you add, change or delete?

Tim and I need your help. As he points out in his post, we need to work together to set the standards of what is and isn't a gimmick. October is full of tricks disguised as promises, ribbons and pink teddy bears. We need to drive these out of cause marketing.

This is one witch hunt that has just cause.