Will the economic downturn stem the rising tide of cause branding? We hear that question a lot these days. The answer is no. Cause branding, in fact, is growing as a greater number of companies realize the benefits that good deeds can bring to their businesses. However, the downturn has caused consumer skepticism about business in general. While cause branding continues to grow, this skepticism could slow it down if cause programs are not authentic and transparent.
Every community in America has a critical universe of philanthropic families who provide financial support for the unique causes that form the social and cultural foundation of the community. In Kansas City, for example, we have the Kauffmans, the Helzbergs, and the Halls, among others. Each of these families is called upon frequently to provide financial support and personal endorsement for the city's most important causes. They do not make their decisions hastily. They give their support only after understanding fully what the specific impact of their donations will be.
While cause branding programs do not replace the work of the great philanthropists among us, there are important lessons to be learned from the careful approach they take before making decisions. Corporations involved in cause branding today or contemplating it for the future should consider the same approach in developing and executing their programs. In particular, companies need to make sure their cause branding programs communicate clearly and specifically what the money being raised seeks to accomplish.
Today, each time a company asks a consumer either to purchase a product with proceeds going to a cause or to make a straight donation to the cause, it is critical that the consumer knows what their money will do. The more specific this is, the better it is for the company, the consumer, and the success of the program.
There is a difference between the amount of a donation being made by a civic philanthropist and a consumer engaged by a cause-branding program. But why should there be any difference in making the consumer feel as good about his or her donation as we do the philanthropist? That's a trick question, of course. There should be no difference.
Consider the partnership between Coca-Cola and Stater Bros. Markets – neither of which is a client – in Southern California. The two companies are combining efforts to plant up to 1 million tree seedlings in two California state parks. It is part of an overall effort by the California State Parks department called “Reforest California” to replant thousands of acres burned by wildfires in recent years.
The campaign runs through May at all 166 Stater Bros. stores. Money will flow from two sources. Customers will be asked at the checkout counter if they want to contribute, and Coca-Cola will donate $1 for every $10 of purchases of its products sold at Stater Bros. stores. This is a simple and direct approach. Every customer knows their checkout donation or their purchase of Coke products will plant a tree in one of two state parks in their area.
Companies and nonprofits are wise to use this program as a guidepost. When you ask your customers to engage in your cause program, can you tell them exactly what their donation will do? If not, you need to stop and ask a simple question: What is our “tree seedling”?
Mike Swenson is president of Barkley Public Relations.