Brands and “cause marketing”: How much is too much?

cmWhen brands conduct attitudinal studies of their customer base, the research often finds that people respond favorably to so-called “positive” or “progressive” causes.

The ALS “Ice-Bucket Challenge” is probably Exhibit A for the potency of such an initiative — including its fantastically successful viral component.

So it’s only natural that brand managers would think in terms of tying their brands to high-profile events such as Earth Day or popular health causes such as efforts to cure cancer or heart disease.

Perhaps the activity is doing a highly publicized community initiative … hosting a well-publicized 5K run or similar event … or donating funds for the cause in a new and attention-grabbing way.

But here’s the rub: With so many national brands doing precisely these sorts of things, it’s become something of an echo chamber.  What once was fresh and novel now seems decidedly ho-hum.

Besides, with so much breathless “cause activity” happening, it’s little wonder that many consumers are seeing through all the hype and attaching near-zero attribution to the brands involved.

The situation is even more problematic when there’s little or no connection between the brand’s products or services and the cause being supported.  The problem is, when brands start vying for attention — especially allying with causes that have nothing at all to do with their core business — “authenticity” goes out the window.

In the process, the brands may telegraph something even worse than irrelevancy; they look desperate for attention.

Of course, all of this evidence doesn’t mean that major brands aren’t continuing to try to attach themselves to the positive vibes of social action. Some recent examples are these:

More problematic than these campaigns was the Starbucks initiative last year in which its baristas were encouraged to start conversations about race relations, interacting with customers waiting in line for their espressos and muffins.

Let’s just say that the idea looked better on paper compared to how it panned out in real life — with more than a few Starbucks customers finding the initiative awkward, intrusive and off-putting (and taking to Twitter to vent their feelings).

Thinking about the good and the not-so-good of “cause marketing,” it appears that the more successful of these initiatives are ones which hew more closely to a brand’s own essence.

Patagonia is a good example of this. Its mission has always been to design and manufacture quality products in an environmentally responsible way, and it promotes proper stewardship of the land and of material possessions through many initiatives that just “feel right” for this particular brand.

And in the realm of apparel and cosmetics, a whole bevy of brands have jumped into conversations about “positive self-image.” While to some people it may seem self-serving for brands like Dove® soap, American Eagle lingerie and Lane Bryant plus-size apparel to become active in such causes, one can also see the logical connection between the products these brands sell and the themes they are spotlighting in these campaigns.

Authenticity and genuineness: Not only are they the hallmark of successful brands, they’re the acid test for successfully grabbing a share of the “social good” pie.  Who’s doing it right … and who’s missing the mark?  Let us know your nominations.

A Game-Changer for Charitable Organizations and Causes?

Jumo, a social network focused on charities.Chris Hughes
Jumo, the newest social network focused on charities and social activism.
There’s a new international social media resource being launched. Jumo, which was unveiled this past week in a beta test version, aims to connect people with not-for-profit causes and charitable organizations.

Established in February 2010, Jumo describes itself as “a social network connecting individuals and organizations who want to change the world.”

The founder of Jumo is Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who more recently served as director of online organizing for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He sees Jumo as a way for people to find and evaluate organizations that focus on the causes that interest them. Such organizations can range all the way from health and educational initiatives to ones dealing with advocacy issues such as gay rights.

News articles, YouTube videos, Twitter posts and other content will be added to Jumo pages, and users can also add their own comments and feedback.

What’s the inspiration behind Jumo? It’s to establish a social platform focusing on issues, advocacy and not-for-profit organizations rather than on personalities or branded products. “The more connected [an] individual is to an issue they care about, the higher probability there is they will stay involved over a longer period of time,” Hughes has stated.

As part of establishing its mission, Jumo has outlined the following three key factors:

 Millions of people are working to improve the lives of others, many of whom lack the resources to have major impact.

 There are millions of other people who would want to help, but don’t know how.

 Despite where we are with technology, it’s still difficult to find meaningful opportunities to get involved.

Jumo provides a platform wherein people can discover the type of causes and organizations they care about, follow the latest news and updates in those fields, and support the work of these organizations through the donation of skills, time or financial support.

In Hughes’ view, this is what differentiates Jumo from social media platforms such as Facebook, which also allows the creation of pages for non-profit groups. Facebook’s groups tend to be passive, with many an individual’s interaction going little beyond “following” or “liking” them.

Hughes believes there will be significantly more volunteering and giving associated with the people who interact with organizations on Jumo. And if that happens, it may finally fulfill the promise of online platforms enabling not-for-profits to raise money more efficiently and less expensively than via traditional means.

That’s a goal that has been stubbornly elusive to date, as only about 5% of all U.S. donations come from online giving, according to the Blackbaud Index of Online Giving.

How does Jumo intend to grow and thrive in the online world? As a not-for-profit initiative itself, it plans to rely on payments from users and sponsorships from groups that would like to receive more highly visible promotion on the site.

Jumo already contains ~3,000 charitable organizations and issues-oriented groups which have been “seeded” on the site. But any organization that is certified as “tax exempt” is eligible to set up a page on Jumo.

Is Jumo destined to transform social activism? Only time will tell … but it will be interesting to see how this interesting new venture evolves and grows in the coming months.