What Cause Marketing Can and Can't Do

My friend and fellow cause marketer Scott Henderson is hosting a summit on Friday, October 8th called Beyond Cause Marketing. Its ambitious goal is to create a new framework for how companies, charities and government can better work with the public to solve social problems.

This is a worthy discussion and I'm looking forward to contributing. But I'm not convinced anyone attending the summit ever thought cause marketing by itself would solve anything to begin with.

Especially as I define it, cause marketing is a niche fundraising/promotional tactic that raises modest dollars and turns the wheel of social change every so slightly.  Cause marketing helps, but it will never solve. Never.

This was on display last week when I posted on how cause marketing could help the Boston Common with its repairs and improvements. Neither I nor anyone who commented thought cause marketing would cure the Common's woes.

What we did think cause marketing could do is:

  • Engage companies and shareholders in the effort to restore the Common
  • Raise public awareness of the deterioration of the Common and the dire need for repairs
  • Demonstrate the power of consumerism as a tool for social change instead of just consumption
  • Raise incremental dollars to support the repairs and improvements on the Common
  • Identify and attract more lucrative forms of funding (e.g. government grants, major individual gifts and corporate foundations to name a few)

Would cause marketing help the Common? Yes, certainly. Long-term will it solve the issues surrounding the Common and give companies, charities and government a sustainable framework for working together? Nope. Never.

Cause marketing makes a great salvo. But it's unsuitable for the hard fight that must follow. Cause marketing is the fleet that bombarded the French coastline before D-Day minus the ground troops. And all of Europe would speak German.

Like cause marketing itself, the name Beyond Cause Marketing is more about promotion than purpose. The way you actually get beyond cause marketing is to use it: "Suggest a way companies, charities and government can work together to solve social problems and get a free, tall Starbucks coffee."

Scott has wisely asked participants to answer two questions in advance of the summit. The first can only have 49 words!

What is your Big Idea for how companies, nonprofits, and government can engage individuals in solving social issues?

Here's my answer.

They need to chart a courageous course for social change that empowers and equips communities for the long journey ahead. This is no place for a single skiff. Like the first trip to the New World, we must depart together and share a common destination.

[Update 9/27/10: My wife told me tonight that this sounds like a load of crap (thanks, honey). Here's my second try. They need to stop screwing around and reward gumption and give people the tools they need to solve problems. Not just once, but for as long as it takes to get the job done.]

What's your big idea for solving society's problems? Join me Beyond Cause Marketing on October 8th and maybe we'll come up with a few answers.