Five Potential Pitfalls of Cause Marketing Programs

There are five potential pitfalls to cause marketing campaigns as a way to encourage consumption-based philanthropy.

1. Cause Marketing Benefits The Company First

Cause marketing programs are housed in a company’s marketing division. The objectives are to increase sales, build public relations, and promote employee team-building. Businesses enter into cause marketing partnerships only when these conditions are met. Some companies do donate funds from these campaigns. But since companies are not required to report the balance sheets for their cause marketing programs, consumers have no way to confirm.

2. People Give Less to Charities

The idea that cause marketing always increases the total money raised for a cause is a false premise. Researchers find that cause marketing purchases decrease direct donations from individuals and have the potential to decrease the total donations to a cause.

“People appear to realize that their motives for participating in cause marketing are more selfish than for charitable giving, reducing their subsequent happiness. This does not prevent them from substituting it for charitable giving, which reduces the overall charitable donation.”

A consumption-based approach to altruism might also unwittingly promote a culture of slacktivism in which token support serves as a proxy for meaningful engagement and effective action.

3. Emotional Appeals Manipulate Consumers

Advertising is a primary channel for the dissemination of cause marketing. As such, emotional appeals  common to the advertising industry aim to put consumers in a state of mind that is open to persuasion. They are not meant to promote critical thinking.

In the pink ribbon marketplace, cause marketing capitalizes on fear of breast cancer, hope for a cure, and the sense of self-satisfaction consumers should feel when participating in the cause.

A pink ribbon campaign at a department store chain appeals to  fear [All women are at risk…], optimism [If I can do cancer, I can do anything…], and joy [images of pink-striped elephants…]. The goal is to encourage consumers who care about breast cancer to buy the products [Spend your cash for good…] while advertising the promotion in social media with the Twitter hashtag, #talkpink. The advertising campaign integrates pink-ribbon symbolism and sound-bites about breast cancer to motivate consumers to buy products.

“Paint the town pink” with rosy shades to add the perfect dose of color to any outfit.

This cause marketing campaign casts itself as awareness while the right shade of pink lipstick stands in as the medicine to treat the disease.

4. Partnerships Mask Conflicts Of Interest

A company or organization with multiple interests has the potential to influence its motivations in ways that undermine its stated goal. For instance, a cause marketing campaign may support cancer research while the company manufactures or sells products with carcinogenic ingredients. Or, a pharmaceutical company may provide funding to a charity while simultaneously marketing drugs to its members.

5. Profitable Campaigns Are Not Open to the Vast Majority of Nonprofits

Charities rely on business support more than ever before. But those that are small or lack the cache of a popular brand rarely get much attention or support. Big box charities are more appealing to large companies aimed at increasing their consumer base. Nonprofits that form long-standing relationships with supporters who believe in and are satisfied with their work tend to have greater access to financial and other resources. Yet the heightened visibility, financial backing, and celebrity endorsement that often accompanies cause marketing promotions remains a holy grail for many groups.

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