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Cause Marketing Gone Wrong


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Cause marketing is a great way to encourage positive social change as well as to promote a business’s products and services. Marketers acknowledge that creating connections between a business and its target audience allows for the transfer of core values and a meaningful message. Customers are likely to rally around a cause if they feel it is authentic and they have the opportunity to make a difference. Customers are often willing to pay more for products if they think part of their purchase will be donated to a worthy cause. By showing your business is a firm believer in corporate responsibility, you have the opportunity to grow your company.

However, some businesses have gone about cause marketing in entirely the wrong way. They either missed the point, or failed to recognize that the whole idea of supporting a cause is to make them look like honest, caring people. If these large corporations can fail so horribly at cause marketing, so can your business. Here are a few examples of failed cause marketing initiatives, as well as some tips for a successful campaign.

Wal-Mart’s Employee Food Drive

One Wal-Mart in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something charitable for Thanksgiving. The store sponsored a food drive for some of the town’s needier citizens. However, those benefitting from the food drive also happened to be Wal-Mart employees.

Needless to say, the news went viral, and instead of looking charitable, Wal-Mart looked like a power-hungry, Scrooge-like corporation. Those who saw the plastic bins for the food drive were outraged. They saw it as proof that the corporation was not paying its employees livable wages. They also found that the fact that Wal-Mart was asking its low-earning workers to donate to other low-earning workers to be in very bad taste. After the launch of the first Thanksgiving food drive, another Walmart location in Ohio followed suit. Instead of fully addressing the wage issues, Walmart spokesman, David Tovar said,

“We’re proud of the pay and benefits at Walmart, but this issue has nothing to do with how much we pay our associates. This story is simply about people being good neighbors, and taking care of each other, store by store, associate by associate.”

Kellogg’s Retweet for a Meal

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Kellogg’s U.K. had the right idea when it wanted to donate meals to needy children. However, they went about doing so in entirely the wrong way. Someone on the Kellogg’s PR staff logged onto Twitter and told its followers that for every retweet it received, the company would donate a meal to a vulnerable child. The problem with this was that Kellogg’s only seemed like it cared about publicity — not about the hungry children. This made the company seem inauthentic and power-hungry.

KFC’s Buckets for a Cure

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As you may have heard, Kentucky Fried Chicken partnered with Susan G. Komen, a foundation for breast cancer research. As part of the campaign, known as Buckets for the Cure, KFC would donate $0.50 for every bucket of chicken ordered by restaurant operators. Similar to the Kellogg’s fiasco, the campaign made KFC seem inauthentic and in poor taste. After all, KFC and Komen were raising money for medical research by promoting unhealthy food. A bucket of KFC chicken packs a powerful 2400 calories and 160 grams of fat. It’s no wonder the partnership was short-lived.

Tips for a Successful Campaign

Businesses can learn a great deal about a successful campaign by looking at where these corporations went wrong. Here are some of the most important elements of a cause marketing campaign, and a look at some companies doing cause marketing the right way:

  • Authenticity — The biggest thing lacking in the above examples was authenticity — all three campaigns failed because they didn’t truly have the charity’s interests at heart. Authenticity is by far the most important part of cause marketing. If customers think that your business doesn’t really care about the cause it’s supporting, the campaign will backfire.

HydroWorx partnered with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to provide therapy pools to those suffering from spinal cord injuries. The campaign allowed the audience to develop an emotional connection with the cause and with the people directly benefitting from it. In an effort to support the cause, HydroWorx ran a series of blog posts updating their customers on the progress of Brian Keefer, a quadriplegic benefitting from the use of their therapy pools.

  • Benefit —Cause-focused marketing tactics need to benefit the charity you’re supporting in some way. Usually, the benefit is money — it’s very easy to donate a portion of all purchases to a worthy cause. There is an added bonus in publicity. In endorsing the cause, your business is telling customers that the cause is credible and truly providing a service to the community.
  • Similar Values — Your company needs to express the same values as the cause in order to be effective. Successful cause-based campaigns are emotional and leave the audience feeling inspired. The KFC campaign failed in part because it went against the values of the Susan G. Komen Corporation. The campaign promoted finding the cure for breast cancer and encouraged behaviors that could potentially cause cancer at the same time. If the campaign goes against the ideals of the cause, the cause isn’t truly supported.

Star Models, a Brazilian modeling agency, launched the “You Are Not A Sketch”  cause marketing campaign in order to dispel the idea that all models should reach an unhealthy weight in order to be successful. The goal of the campaign was to combat anorexia in the modeling industry. The campaign was labeled a success because of the shock value and the unified message.

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  • Events and Publicity — Customers need to know about the marketing campaign in order for it to be effective. It’s a good idea to hold multiple events to show customers that the company truly supports the cause. Social media can do a great job at reaching out to the target audience. However, also consider dinners, fundraisers and other promotional events that both raise money for the cause and bring attention to the campaign.

Above all, use common sense and trust your instincts when implementing cause marketing. If a move seems sleazy, it probably is. Often, it’s easiest to get behind a cause that your company truly cares about — this way you’ll always seem authentic.

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About the author: Savannah Marie

Savannah Marie is a public relations specialist and freelance writer. She graduated from Tulane University with a degree in public relations and contributes marketing, public relations and entrepreneurship articles to many publications.

  • Mark Nejmeh

    Seems like a cheap trick no matter how you slice it. I do not see why we have to co-mingle non-profits with profit. It is to the point we don’t know who cares and who does not, Lack of sincerity everywhere

    • savfmarie

      I agree to a certain extent. Many cause marketing campaigns are lacking an authenticity factor. However, the corporations getting it right are able to use their platforms to generate support for a worthy cause. Consumers love when big brands care. I believe cause marketing can have a 360 degree benefit if it’s approached and executed correctly.

  • Pingback: Change the World & Strengthen Your Brand With Cause Marketing

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