Dancing with the Devil: Cause Marketing for Nonprofits


I’ve read the many posts on the Komen/KFC cause marketing partnership, most of them bashing KFC for cause washing. The logic is that eating fried chicken causes weight gain, a pre-condition of breast cancer. In reality, while there is a mismatch in this partnership, the fault actually lies with Komen and not KFC. This represents a larger issue where nonprofits consistently choose money over strategic partnerships, dancing with the wrong partner and degrading their brand value.

Yet when causes choose a brand partner that hurts their mission, they rarely take ownership of their poor strategic management. I wrote a long post on the topic a year ago, Brutal Truths About Cause Marketing when “social media for social good” was the meme of the day. From that post:

“The nonprofit sector should take responsibility for who it chooses to partner with and why (hat tip: Allison Fine, lecture, Georgetown University on March 31, 2009). The stresses of fundraising and marshaling resources — even in an economy like this one — do not justify shunning off responsibility for cause marketing sliminess and failures. Nonprofit organizations [risk tarnishing their image if they] don’t organize intelligent programs that manage their brands as well as attract donors…”

In the case of Komen, I am going to somewhat applaud KFC. Why? Because they are actually countering some of the ills their product causes. Per earlier posts, this gets to the heart of good corporate citizenship and social responsibility: Cleaning up the negative impact your products or services have on society.

And I am going to repeat words from my Dow and Live Earth post: We as a society need to understand that we cannot shun companies from doing the right thing, even when they have consistently done the wrong thing in the past… Are we so invested in corporate evil that we won’t let villains evolve into better citizens? For me, the answer is no. I would prefer dialogue and progress.

Where this campaign went from being a lethal generosity win for both parties to the current blogodrama is the use of buckets containing fried chicken versus only grilled chicken (hat tip, Ike). Only grilled chicken would have been an authentic statement about eating healthier (somewhat) in support of a good cause that combats the ills of fried food, while mindfully encouraging a product demand shift to grilled chicken. Instead, we are left feeling, well, greasy.

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Intelligently Manage Use of Your Nonprofit Brand

So in my mind the ills in the KFC/Komen partnership lie with a faulty campaign that supports product — fried chicken — which causes breast cancer. It tarnishes the Komen brand and causes more harm than good. Shame on Komen for not managing the use of their brand in a more intelligent fashion. While nonprofits desperately need cash, sacrificing your brand integrity in this fashion represents a major strategic error.

As a business owner I identify with the cry that nonprofits are cash starved. I also know that as a serial entrepreneur that every time I took a deal which felt wrong — but offered me immediate needed cash — that deal burned me. Oh yes, I have paid deeply for such deals.

A nonprofit’s job is not to raise money, but to affect change. Straying from missions leads to consequences, so intelligently vetting opportunities only makes sense. Like the American Red Cross’s Wendy Harman indicates in this comment, nonprofits need processes to work internally and with their cause marketing dance partners to create smarter campaigns that win for both brands. In corporate speak, nonprofits need branding guidelines for cause marketing campaigns.

Here are some suggested questions that I would ask if I was the nonprofit protecting my brand value:

1) Is this a financial win for the company or is it just another contest or cause-shopping effort with little obvious value?

2) Does the cause marketing campaign have a clearly stated theory of change so that we can measure not only financial results, but also how the effort positively impacted our stakeholders?

3) Does the partner offer products or services that have historically or currently cause damage to those that I help?

4) If 3 is yes, has the corporation changed or does it want to change, and in that sense, will changing the corporation’s behavior help our nonprofit positively impact our mission?

5) If 3 is yes, a second vetting question: Is the company willing to talk about its past/current issue in an authentic fashion, and why it is willing to combat some of the damage it causes?

6) Is the corporation willing to work with my nonprofit to optimize the cause marketing campaign so it’s authentic, transparent and positively impacts both of our brands?

7) Will the use of our brand in this campaign tarnish its use in the eyes of a majority of stakeholders?

8) If there are too many negatives, does it make more sense to simply ask for a check or walk away from the deal altogether?

Which questions would you add as guidance to nonprofits considering cause marketing partnerships?