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Cause Marketing – the Real Deal or an Unscrupulous Promotion?

Posted by Dr. Nancy Furlow, Guest Blogger on Oct 26, 2016 1:00:00 PM

In today’s world of cynics and disbelievers, transparency in business is essential. This is especially true when companies and nonprofits engage in “cause marketing.” In the month of October which is designated as “pink”, unfortunately there are some unscrupulous promotions in the marketplace masking as support for breast cancer awareness and research organizations.

shutterstock_153061814 breast cancer.jpg

While most campaigns are overwhelmingly genuine and do indeed funnel a portion of the sale of a pink product to organizations such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation and National Breast Cancer Foundation, some campaigns are simply engaging in “pinkwashing” and giving the impression that purchasing the product will in some small way support breast cancer research when in fact it does not (see link for an interesting discussion: http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=497)

It is not only pink campaigns that have consumers on their guard.  The rise in popularity of cause marketing has spawned numerous less-than-genuine campaigns. When Skechers launched BOBS, their answer to mission-based TOMS shoes in 2010, the company was quickly criticized for lacking creativity and not being sincere in their cause marketing efforts. The shoes were an obvious knockoff of TOMS which had become so popular, in part, due to the “buy one give one” philosophy behind the product. Granted, BOBS shoes are designed exactly like TOMS and also have the BOGO charitable tactic behind them. However, after receiving much criticism and lackluster sales, Skechers launched a partnership last year with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.  The partnership includes sales of a limited edition collection of dog and cat print shoes, sponsorship of national events such as the Strut Your Mutt and Super Adoptions, as well as a $3 million dollar donation to nonprofit organizations. This move detours a bit from TOMS’ focus of charitable giving and may position Skechers as a company that is concerned about animal welfare, a place where TOMS is not currently sitting in consumers’ minds.

While this strategy may raise awareness of the BOBS product line and even create goodwill for Skechers, the success of this strategy still remains to be seen.  Is this a desperate move by a company that has been criticized for their insincere cause marketing efforts or is this a move that both Skechers and Best Friends may end up benefitting from?

In order for cause marketing to be effective, a number of aspects need to be in place.

  • Mission Alignment. The partnership must be a good fit for both the company and the nonprofit and fit their missions. A good example is Target and Feeding America.  A bad example is Kentucky Fried Chicken and Susan G. Komen Foundation.  (Yes, that really happened.)
  • The promotion needs to be clear and upfront about what is behind the promotion.  New York State has taken a close look at this issue and has come up with their own rules for transparency:  https://www.charitiesnys.com/cause_marketing.html
  • Enduring relationship. For the cause marketing partnership to be genuine, it is important that the relationship between organization and company extend beyond the sale of a product. This could include an employee volunteer program, participation in additional fundraising opportunities throughout the year, or other ways that the partnership can be solidified beyond “a portion of the proceeds of the sale.”

So, while Skechers may see an uptick in sales and Best Friends may get additional exposure and financial support, is this truly a match made in heaven? Because this campaign is only a year-long promotion, it seems unlikely that both organizations will want to continue in their cause partnership.

What do you think the future holds for BOBS? And what other cause marketing promotions have you seen that made you wonder “what were they thinking”?

Dr. Nancy Furlow, Professor, Business

Department of Management, Marketing

Marymount University

Topics: marketing, ethics

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