In 2006, Oprah and Bono embarked on a benevolent shopping spree, buying iPods, Beats headphones, Nike shoelaces and any other red-coloured product they could get their hands on.
This televised spree was part of the more than $100 million spent on marketing the Product(Red) Campaign that involved well-known brands pledging to donate a portion of the profit from every product sold to The Global Fund, which helps fight the spread of AIDS and malaria in Africa. At the time, the media hailed it as an innovative triumph in cause marketing, but one expert argues it's not cause marketing at all.
"That campaign has been greatly confused and misunderstood over the years," says Bruce Burtch a San Francisco-based consultant and trainer has been creating win-win, cross-sector partnerships between non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses for more than 30 years.
"They were the first to say that they were a business and not a cause marketing campaign. They were more of a broker – using their marketing muscle and celebrity backing to convince companies to donate a portion of their profits for this product to The Global Fund. Actual cause marketing is an equal partnership with one brand donating a stated percentage of a product's proceeds to a non-profit for social good. "
More specifically, Burtch defines cause marketing as the development of a marketing program between a non-profit and for-profit organization when they are both addressing their mutual business objectives and that partnership is focused on the greater good.
Does it work?
When cause marketing is used effectively, not only do both sectors reach their objectives, but also the consumer finds such tactics irresistible.
"The benefit is primarily monetary," says Burtch. "The research says 87% of the public would buy a product that was connected to a cause versus a product that isn't."
The urge is even stronger among Millennials and moms, which are the two highest-rated demographics who want to buy products that support a cause. Cone Inc.'s Cause Evolution Study revealed that 95% of moms find cause marketing acceptable, nine out of 10 would buy a product that would support a cause and 93% are willing to switch to a brand that supports a cause. Behind them are the Millennials, (age 18-24) 94% of them find cause marketing acceptable and 53% have bought a product that supports a cause in the last year. So, why do we respond to cause marketing so readily?
"It makes us feel better, but it also doesn't ask a whole lot of us," says Burtch. "It's not a substitute for the gratification of in-person engagement, but it's a way to feel connected or involved without having to, in any way, disrupt your lifestyle or add a burden to it."
Cause-less cause marketing
One of the criticisms of the Product(Red) campaign was that it never specified what amount of the profits actually went to The Global Fund -- red flag consumers should watch out for as far as Burtch is concerned.
"There's such a thing as cause-less cause marketing. It's deplorable and that's where they're saying that a dollar from this t-shirt will go to fight AIDS in Africa. You're going, 'What organization? How much money are you giving?' There's nothing in there that tells you whether they're actually going to give a dollar for AIDS."
He recommends only buying a product because you needed that product in the first place and not just because it's connected to a cause. When Burtch buys a product, he wants to know the percentage of proceeds that are actually going to the cause and if that's not visible, he will ask the store manager.
"If they can't answer, I will not buy it. It all comes under transparency. You want to know that the company has made a written agreement with that non-profit organization to give a certain amount of my money."
Aaron Broverman is a freelance writer in Toronto