Cause Marketing Cynicism on the Rise


During SxSW, Beth Kanter, Kami Huyse and I posted our first team thought leadership piece, “Cause Marketing That Leads to Social Change.” It encompasses our 21st century view of CSR-based cause marketing initiatives in social environments (Image by Tom Fishburne). Key components include:

  • Cause Washing Leads to Cynicism (need for authenticity)

  • Leading with Social Outcomes (theory of change)

  • Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

  • Contest Fatigue Sets In

  • Empowering Stakeholders – Ensuring Change

  • Use Social Tools to Immerse Stakeholders

The post is really thick, and may take some time to digest. There are parts already discussed in minor form through smaller blog posts on our three blogs. One of the newer areas that I found to be important was cause washing. Certainly, a concept changebloggers have bandied about before, but not one that has been well discussed in the larger communications and marketing world.

That’s going to change quickly as cause marketing continues to accelerate as a hot trend. Many companies will enter the foray, not because their culture would make such a move intelligent, but because the marketers think it’s a good idea. It’ll “refresh” their brand.

In reality, they will be committing the same mistake many marketers made when they attempted to brand their products green. The ensuing greenwashing backlash is still escalating as more and more companies try to enter the sustainable marketplace or differentiate from competitors with a dash of ecosense.

Not everyone will be able to bring the splash of millions to the table. Then what will they do when consumers get out-contested and start seeing through the five cent donations?

Beth pointed out Joey Leslie, who said, “Causewashing is hiding a brand behind a cause for corporate benefit.” But the benefit only goes as far as the consumers who get the warm fuzzies for the brand with the laundry machine. As cynicism rises, companies will need to back their cause efforts with substance, real change programs that actually match their cultural values and business mission.

I don’t want to discourage companies form trying to do good. In that sense, my friend Ike Pigott is right. Some progress is better than none. Instead, we need to elevate this conversation so that more companies and communicators engage in cause marketing with real socially responsible motives that will benefit them and their communities of interest.

23 Replies to “Cause Marketing Cynicism on the Rise”

  1. Really like your post Geoff. I actually highlight the fatigue aspect in one of my ’cause marketing talks’ as a consequence of either running multiple campaigns or doing too many campaigns throughout a year.

    Geez Oh Man, don’t ya just wish companies would hire Joe Waters or me?:)!

  2. Some great thoughts in here, but my main takeaways are confirmation of the following as tenets for effective cause marketing: deliver authenticity, not lip-service; provide empowered, transparent choice to ensure customer or employee resonance (not just a vote!); find a means to meaningfully aggregate micro-donations to enable impact across something broader than your own brand; and challenge conventional approaches! This was recently cited by a prominent causeblogger as “the best explanation of cause marketing ever”:

  3. Geoff, thanks for the post. Contest fatigue–absolutely true, but I hadn’t thought of that before. I’m particularly interested in engaging all the stakeholders because doing so makes for a stronger, more informed and supported business and is plain fun. Jeffrey Hollender talks about Linden Lab’s former CEO’s mechanisms for employee engagement in The Responsibility Revolution.

  4. Geoff:

    I’ve been reflecting about the cause Cynicism and wondering how much is this something that we as insiders are feeling versus something that is out there more broadly?

    Then, I started to think about creative destruction . … what if we could blow up cause related marketing and reinvent so it could have more social impact. What would look like?

    Is have a social mission just something that the CSR department should be responsible or should infect their entire corporation?

    No answers, just questions.

  5. Beth: I feel like the average citizen is less aware of it, and just develops a general mistrust towards both the company and the cause. Thus our sensitivity.

    While I would like to blow up the current approaches, I feel like we will always be dealing with the legacy of cause marketing, just as social media communicators have to deal with the legacy of traditional command and control communications and branding. It will be a struggle. New organizations have the benefit of new companies and unfettered approaches.

  6. Geoff. Thanks for this. I actually compiled a guest post today for Full Contact Philanthropy that speaks to the language side of this- as it is important for us to be and invest in organizations that clearly demonstrate what we do.

    An element of corporate cause marketing is the cause they get behind. If the corporation is vouching for a cause or organization that promises to eradicate poverty, I believe that would be a call for concern both for consumers and shareholders.

    You mention, in your post the “green” phase that companies entered. It becomes less valuable to consumers, especially when they cannot actually see the tangible effects or results of going green. What does that actually mean? Communicating what is actually being done, demonstrating results, is an important part of marketing. Seth Godin speaks to this in Purple Cow. In order to be remarkable, you actually have to BE remarkable- not just speak remarkably or paint pretty pictures with words like green, the girl effect, or homelessness.

    Here’s the link and thanks for contributing to this line of thinking. It’s valuable.’s-talk-straight-and-eradicate-buzz-words/

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