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.