Starting in 2012, you couldn’t buy a cup of coffee without saving the planet. Brands fell over themselves to promote their willingness to donate portions of proceeds to feed the hungry, cure cancer, home the homeless, and save the tigers. And good for them.
But what if all this corporate philanthropy-made-visible is simply a noble distraction from the business that they are in? What if these actions are market re-actions instead of new kind of business with values?
I define noble distractions as strategies and actions that are good to do, but misaligned with core business objectives. So, more than simply being inauthentic, these distractions also carry a price to the business and to sustainability. Maybe consumers care, but I think more realistically, they are looking for an excuse to shop.
That said, multiple surveys over the past few years have shown that the overwhelming majority of consumers do believe companies should behave like good citizens (2010 Edelman GoodPurpose Study). Yet they also question corporations’ honesty (2010 StrategyOne Survey). Where once it could be taken for granted that consumers would believe the claims made by trusted brands, even historically dominant brands are increasingly compelled to prove their environmental integrity to consumers. In response, corporations look to Cause Marketing as an authentication tool.
This marketing strategy is dear to the modern brand because of its predictably and perpetuation of the transactional relationship. Simply, Cause Marketing moves product. Cause Marketing contextualizes the sustainability conversation within the comfortable Company-Consumer paradigm by attempting to convince the consumer that s/he is engaged in an authentic experience of charity alongside the brand. This is a false construct of course [the hierarchy is still intact, there is no “beside” in that relationship], but is not without benefits for all parties. Companies win sales and a touch of halo. Non-profits enjoy financial gain and visibility to new potential constituents. And consumers get permission to do what they do best – consume more. What’s wrong with any of that?
First, it all seems like a giant wink. It’s akin to asking your girlfriend to go upstairs and listen to records. There’s a thinly veiled subtext in it all. Records are not what you have in mind. The corporation knows that Cause Marketing is a sales strategy more than a humanity play. The consumer, on some level, knows this too. Wink.
Let’s put a point on it: Cause Marketing is a great marketing strategy, but I’m not convinced it is a sound CSR strategy. Often, both corporations and consumers confuse it as such.
Slovenian cultural theorist and capitalism critic Slavoj Zizek likens this kind of Cause Capitalism to fixing with your right hand what you are breaking with your left. The act creates a kind of consumption that delivers financial aid and awareness to the problem it also creating. At its worst, it is presented as a pink ribbon used to sell toys laced with carcinogens. But that is a gross (though not exaggerated) example that simply proves the point. The vast majority of campaigns are less sinister, but no less distracting to corporate performance and the potential for Authentic CSR. With the cost of “saving the tiger” imbedded in the product, the consumer has fulfilled his or her mental activism quotient.
The old maxim is true when it comes to Cause Marketing: “advertising is the price you pay for not being creative.” The resources required to maintain the veneer of sustainability are often greater than the resources required to bring corporate alignment to bear using authentic strategies. Lacking authentic sustainability, companies buy an appearance. Mostly, this veneer is neither malicious nor intentional. It exists in exuberance to do better (by doing good) and in blind spots created by size and lack of alignment.
In 2015, we will see less CSR. This is not a disappearance, but a slow turn inward to internalizing CSR as a core business practice (and reaping the operational benefits). It is a more genuine aligning of corporate functions, strategic aims and sustainability where it makes sense to underscore authentic corporate values. Companies are learning that stitching together patchwork quilts of sustainability is bad strategy. And that sometimes promoting philanthropy is a poor replacement for getting caught doing good.