Product Red's Bono Learns the Hard Way: Don't Put the Cause Before the Horse

Last month the WSJ profiled U2's Bono and and his wife Ali Hewson's efforts to launch a fashion line with clothes made in sub-Saharan Africa. (Hat tip to the good folks at Cone for the lead). Edun got off to a rough start because Bono and Ali had the best of intentions, which, unfortunately, didn't top the list of reasons consumers would pay $800 for a jacket. Design and fit mattered more.

"We focused too much on the mission in the beginning, " explained Hewson. It's the clothes, it's the product. It's a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost."

Edun is just another business that learned you can't put mission before margin. The best way for a business to help a cause is to be a great business first, and an advocate for causes second.

At the Beyond Cause Marketing summit ten days ago my industry's mom Carol Cone told me that even cause leader Timberland had seen sales erode a few years ago when consumer interest in their styles waned. Cause couldn't save them. Ultimately, Timberland would rise or fall on their shoes.

Businesses are still making the mistake of putting mission before margin. Causeworld, Panera Community Cafe and Causeon are just three examples.

I've written on Causeon, spoken to the founder--a good man with good intentions--and like the idea. But the premise of Causeon is that consumers will choose it over Groupon and 200 copycats because Causeon supports greats causes. But consumers are looking for great deals first and to help causes second.

The real opportunity is when you take a great business and activate it for good.

Take Groupon, which will hit a billion dollar in sales faster than any other company in history. In May, when DonorsChoose.org was the featured daily deal on Groupon they raised $162,000.

Should we wait for cause-centric businesses like Causeon to take hold, or should we double our efforts to work with great businesses of all sizes to raise money for causes?

You know what side I'm on. What about you?

One last point. Next to developing a magnetic cause brand that sucks in great businesses, nonprofits should focus on finding great businesses to stick themselves to. Nonprofits spend too much time on fundraising strategy and ideas when what they really need is the horsepower drive them.

Given the choice between a great idea or a great partner, I'll take the latter. With a great business anything is possible, and even the most basic cause marketing tactic can be given new life with the right partner.

It's not enough to right your cart and put the horse in front where it belongs. You have to hitch your wagon to a star.

CauseWorld: Location-Based Cause Marketing

Beth Kanter recently wrote on CauseWorld, which is essentially a "cause version" of Foursquare.

Like foursquare and gowalla, you open the application on your phone and see local businesses (instead of showing everything around you, CauseWorld only shows businesses that you can check into for karmas). Enter the store, check in, and get the karma points offered to you. Once you’ve collected enough karmas you can donate them to a variety of causes. And, of course, you get badges for various activities.

You should definitely read Beth's post and check out the TechCruch interview with the founder. I've been using the iPhone app for over a week and I like it a lot. The interface is very slick and you learn a lot about the charities CauseWorld supports. (Charities that are currently being funded by Citi and Kraft Foods.) But I have my doubts that this niche cause service can really compete against mainstream players like Foursquare.

  • Right now I'm checking in with both CauseWorld and Foursquare. That's not going to last. One of them will win out. If Foursquare adds the cause component to it, I'd rather do ten things on Foursquare than one thing on CauseWorld.
  • Niche cause services never seem to take off. I'm not spending a lot of time on GoodSearch, are you? Remember all those portals we could visit before going to sites like L.L. Bean and Amazon, and good causes would get a few pennies every time we bought something? Are you still using them?
  • Thus far consumers prefer to include their causes within a mainstream activity or vehicle. Take Facebook, which has a cause component. While supporting causes via Facebook is still in its infancy, it will grow. I'm not sure the same will be true for a standalone product like CauseWorld.

Think of it in terms of Product RED and its retail partners. Would it be better for RED to have standalone stores filled with cause products? Or is RED better off selling a few products in Starbucks and Apple and Nike? The answer is clear because the mainstream consumerism these retailers offer drives charity sales and RED is the big winner.

Alas, I'm not sure people want a cause world.

But I do think they want a world with causes. And if they can get that on Facebook, or on Foursquare, or in their next visit to Starbucks--things they do everyday for reasons outside of philanthropy--that might preclude a separate tool like CauseWorld.

What do you think?