5 Cause Marketing Mistakes to Avoid

By raising money, creating awareness, and providing publicity, cause marketing campaigns can be beneficial to both nonprofits and for-profits. But getting it right is tricky, and many have failed spectacularly. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, be aware of these common cause marketing mistakes – and create a plan to avoid them.

Make sure your campaign doesn’t fall victim to any of these common mistakes in cause marketing.

Lack of Alignment Between Cause and Brand

Nothing makes a cause marketing campaign fall flat faster than a cause and business that don’t add up, especially if consumers get a whiff of hypocrisy or opportunism. Some of the worst examples? Companies whose products increase the risk of breast cancer raising money for breast cancer research (KFC), businesses donating $1 to diabetes research for every giant soda sold (KFC again), and oil companies selling branded products in collaboration with environmental groups (BP). Efforts like these are downright laughable, and the backlash they spark is a PR disaster for the company and the nonprofit alike. Even in less egregious cases, cause marketing looks insincere when there’s no obvious connection between the company and its cause, so make sure you choose your cause carefully.

High Marketing Costs

Plan to put significant resources into your cause marketing campaign – but make sure it doesn’t cost more than it raises.

One of the draws of cause marketing is that it puts the substantial resources found in the for-profit sector behind a cause that might otherwise lack funding. But this becomes a problem when the costs of the campaign get out of control – and even surpass the amount of money raised. Take for instance the popular (RED) campaign, in which companies from Apple to the Gap create red versions of their products and donate a portion of the proceeds to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. After its first year, reports came back that the campaign had spent over $100 million on marketing – and only raised $18 million.

While it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the awareness raised by this or other campaigns, it seems obvious that a direct donation from the companies would have made a bigger impact. Before you launch your cause marketing campaign, establish a realistic estimate of how much it will cost and how much it’s likely to raise.

Too Many Restrictions

Any campaign will have some limitations, but setting too many will reduce the amount of money it can raise – and it’ll start to look like the company is trying to get out of actually parting with any of their profits. Luxury menswear company Joseph Abboud did exactly that in their response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They decided to donate a portion of their proceeds, but only for one week and only for sales at one of their many retailers – and consumers took notice. If you go to the effort of doing cause marketing, create a robust campaign that has a shot at making a sizable impact.

Lack of Transparency

A lack of transparency is one of the biggest issues in cause marketing, and it makes it impossible to determine whether a campaign was successful.

A lack of transparency about where funds go, how they’re used, or how much is donated is one of the most common criticisms of cause marketing. Too many businesses say they’ll “give a portion of the proceeds” without specifying a percent or that “donations will go to charity” without saying which one. Even when a specific non-profit is named, it can be unclear which components of their work the donations will fund. More transparency gives consumers more confidence in your campaign, likely resulting in more participation and more money raised, while also enabling the success of the campaign to be measured.

Top-Down Decision Making

To put it simply, decisions about cause marketing shouldn’t be made exclusively by a group of middle-aged white male senior executives. Rather, there needs to be a dialogue with employees – especially if they’re the face of the campaign – and consumers, as well as experts in your cause of choice. Starbucks’ disastrous Race Together campaign, which left both baristas and customers feeling uncomfortable and annoyed, is a common example of a campaign that failed, in part, because the people critical to its success weren’t consulted.

When deciding what cause to support and how to support it, get the perspectives of people who will be involved with and affected by the campaign – or you might find your company’s name next to Starbucks on the next list of cause marketing fails.

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