Cartoonists often portray tiny devils and angels whispering into the ears of their characters to symbolize the good and bad impulses that influence our decisions.
Marketers are keenly aware of the struggle between our virtuous and darker instincts. Historically, the vast majority of campaigns have been designed to appeal to our personal needs, lusts, greed or insecurities.
Over the last decade, however, there's been tremendous growth in the number of marketing and corporate initiatives that appeal to our desire to help others or tackle social or environmental problems. Some have become very well known. In the U.S., for example, General Mills' Boxtops for Education has raised over $300 million for schools one 10-cent box top redemption at a time. Overseas, Pampers' 1 Pack = 1 Vaccine campaign has protected 100 million women and their babies from Maternal Neonatal Tetanus in cooperation with UNICEF since 2006.
The upswing in companies deciding to invest in programs that yield financial and social dividends is driven by numerous factors. First and foremost, reams of market research shows that consumers and employees reward good corporate citizens and will punish those judged not to be living up to their social responsibilities.
Whatever the rationale, marketing and corporate social initiatives have channeled billions of dollars worth of funding, volunteer time and other resources to pro-social programs. In contrast, comparatively little social good would have been generated if those investments had been plowed into expensive sports or entertainment marketing sponsorships.
Fortunately, a growing body of case studies supports the contention made in the title of my recently released book: Good Works! Marketing and Corporate Initiatives That Build a Better World and the Bottom Line (coauthored with Professor Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee).
Don't confuse my enthusiasm for mixing value and values with blind boosterism. Cause marketing can be a force for good, but cause-related efforts are not ipso facto worthy of praise. Indeed some very flawed programs have come to market (linking support for breast cancer with sales of fried chicken for example) and many deserve mixed grades (e.g. good fit between company and cause, impressive donation, strong business results, but inadequate disclosure.)
Critics are quick to point out shortcomings such as a lack of transparency or "authenticity" (a highly subjective appraisal of whether a company is being opportunistic or is truly committed to the cause.)
With our country and the world beset by so many grave problems, it's time to 1) encourage more companies to explore how they can prosper by appealing to the best in human nature and 2) educate them on best practices that will make them more successful and 3) help them avoid mistakes that can earn them brickbats instead of accolades.
To that end, here's a quick list of does and don'ts any business venturing into the world of purpose-driven marketing would be wise to heed:
1. Start with an objective. Almost giddy at the prospect of doing good, too many companies skip the crucial step of clearly defining the goals they want to achieve before examining strategies and tactics. Then they end up with programs that don't achieve much of anything and wonder why.
2. Choose a cause first, then consider partners. Determine what cause resonates with your consumer and aligns with your company's heritage and values. Only after you've established the best conceptual fit will you be ready to analyze how nonprofits enter the equation.
3. Study up on the technical/legal issues. Regulatory issues related to working with nonprofits are not onerous, but it is critical to understand them before creating programs. If a reporter discovers that you failed register a program with state authorities, they're likely to make that the headline of their story even if your efforts raised millions to help people in need.
4. Walk then run. As with any new venture, it's wise to run a pilot program first to get the kinks out. This is especially true when working with nonprofit partners. The trial run will give you the opportunity to learn how to work well together before the spotlight of public scrutiny is upon you.
5. Celebrate and capitalize on the fact that this is more than just another marketing exercise. For so many of the businesspeople I've interviewed, the work they've done on cause-related programs has been a career highlight, challenging, but very satisfying. Leverage the pride that purpose-driven efforts can generate to get everyone from the CEO to front-line workers on board. Their engagement will be critical to your success.