What Could Your Cause Do with a Full Page USA Today Ad?

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Ironically, USA Today never asks that question in its #America Wants Twitterathon to give away a free full page ad valued at approximately $190,000. Perhaps worse, USA Today never asked itself how the newspaper can use a full age ad to help a charity that authentically reflects the newspaper’s mission.

Instead we get another contest with no authenticity or theory of change. So what’s the impact? While it seems to be generating some tweets from charities, the overall impact will be debatable.

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From a marketing standpoint, the contest — based on responses to date — has generated a lackluster amount of response. So whether it’s the USA Today or its Kindness Community, in general I’d say this could be better.

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Now, from a change impact standpoint, we have a scattershot approach to the ad. No theory of change means whoever gets the ad will either be a great creator of ads or a bust, but USA Today doesn’t seem to care with this effort. Nor do they care what type of cause (health, environment, etc.) will win the effort. They’ve taken the Pepsi Refresh approach of trusting the crowd.

I’m not quite sure how that successfully changes anything.

Ironically, even the USA Today’s Kindness community has a purpose, “Kindness is your daily source of inspiration and guide to making a difference in fresh and exciting ways, no matter where you are. Each day, this site will unearth unique stories of giving with exclusive interviews, fresh takes on news stories, plenty of tips, and links to interesting resources.”

So let’s riff of that for a different campaign with a theory of change: “Blog your cause’s best story of kindness and tag it “USA Today America Wants” and we will dedicate an entire page in our newspaper to that story, a sidebar on on related tips, and an advertisement from the cause. We will work with you to create a strong call to action so your cause can measure the impact of the advertisement, whether it be donations, awareness or advocacy.

Hmm. Encourage stories of kindness throughout the Internet (achieve mission, reflecting authentic corporate values), create an opportunity for the cause to use the story to affect change (move the needle), generate earned media impressions (market), and add more members to the kindness community (market). Just my two cents on this…

#America Wants expires tomorrow (April 16). While I see cause marketing weaknesses in the effort, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge my cause friends for seeing differently or from participating. It’s still a full page ad ;) In fact, below find a couple of different views…

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Cause Marketing Cynicism on the Rise

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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.

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

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Social media continues to impact businesses and nonprofits in unforeseen ways. Perhaps the greatest trend of the moment is the fusion of corporate and philanthropic interests, which in turn is producing growing pains and change. It’s likely that the requirements of online transparency will demand a new era of authenticity in corporate community investment efforts.

This trend results from demands for better corporate citizenship and community participation, transparency digressions, and frankly, very public cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs that have exposed weaknesses in the social media realms.

It’s a problem that keeps coming up, and won’t go away. This will force organizations and companies to become much more mindful about how they invest in their communities.

This discussion is one that I’ve been having piecemeal with many people, in and outside of Zoetica, from cohorts Kami Huyse and Beth Kanter to change-minded folks like Alex Bornkessel, Allyson Kapin, Dan Morrison and Amy Sample Ward. I want to thank each of them for our ongoing dialogue, and directly or indirectly helping synthesize this post. My purpose in publishing this is soliciting feedback to evolve this authenticity theory. Please sound off.

The Current Authenticity Situation

DC Central Kitchen - Indique Heights Teaches

Indique Heights Owner and Chef K.N. Vinod Teaches at DC Central Kitchen

Many companies blur the lines now between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility, which in turn creates problems. One is not the other, but unfortunately, the current business environment will likely continue blurring the definitions rather than adhering to form. In that sense, this reminds me of the personal brand vs. reputation debate.

Ninety percent of companies cannot discern the difference between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility. Altruism often fails or is not thought out. In reality, most companies think, “Yeah, we’ll give some money to charity,” and let their executives figure out which ones. In the social media world, now they just outsource it to their communities (in both good and bad ways).

We must accept this level of understanding and approach CSR/cause marketing in a manner that raises the general level of ethics at play. In either case, social media continues exposing weaknesses in cause marketing, which will force such initiatives to become more CSR-oriented.

Moving forward, regardless of purpose, companies need to become much more authentic in their community investments. Authenticity means instead of simply throwing money at a cause or contest, they would directly address their missions, or the problems directly/indirectly created by their business. A third category — family — would be the causes that impact their employees, such as healthcare.

By being much more mindful in their cause initiatives, companies become better community citizens. And frankly, their online communities of interest will start demanding it.

Three Forms of Authenticity in Community Investment

Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

Mindful authenticity in corporate community investment manifests itself in three ways:

Mission: Every company tries to market something. In doing so they have a mission and a product or service that fulfills a need. As such, authenticity dictates that the company invest in a community in a manner that relates to their core competency and also their marketing initiatives.

This is much more important for cause marketing initiatives. For example, if a company’s mission is information technology oriented, then literacy and education are obvious investments. So is poverty, and ensuring that the digital divide gets conquered. But investing everything the company had in cancer research makes no sense as an IT company’s strategic investment. It would for a healthcare oriented company.

Problem: In life we all create wreckage, both directly and indirectly. Some do less, some do more. In the environmental sense, every person has a carbon footprint. Thus it’s safe to say every company impacts the community in some negative ways.

Authenticity here dictates acknowledgment of impact, and actions to address the damage. For example, Exxon Mobile may want to make a greater investment in green energy than a trifle $100 million investment. Or instead of allocating $20 million for Pepsi Refresh, Pepsi would take a few million dollars to support causes addressing obesity issues as well as investing in reusable container technologies.

Family: Right now I would classify 90 percent of corporate community investments in this category, and that’s a mistake. Many of the crowd-sourced contest initiatives go wayward in this sense, too… Why? Because most of the investments are not thought-out and represent haphazard donations. They don’t acknowledge the corporate mission or the problems the company creates.

That being said, we all have or are employees. Companies represent big families, and in that sense it’s right to take a portion of donatable funds, and invest in real human issues like autism research or homelessness.

The right formula of mission, problem and family needs to be weighed intelligently by each organization. But that’s where the growth comes. Because blindly investing in family causes, or solely focusing on mission based initiatives causes an organization to stray from its community. Given today’s social media environment, at some point a cry will come for more balanced investment approaches.

What do you think about authenticity in corporate social responsibility?