Maternal Instinct: Carol Cone On The Cause Marketing Debate

As an avid reader of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, I have watched with great interest the unfolding dialogue generated by Assistant Professor Angela Eikenberry’s article: The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing.

Let me start with disclosures. Many of the comments are from people I know, some more than others, in the cause constellation. In addition, I have often been called “The Mother of Cause Marketing,” having worked in the field of linking companies with causes, and causes with companies, for 25+ years. I thus enter this dialogue with battle scars worn proudly and with great satisfaction to see the market’s expansive responses from public-private partnerships that raise awareness, action and funds for causes large and small, in the U.S. and abroad.


Today companies are expected to contribute to society in a variety of ways. The reasons they do so are many, as we have learned through working in the field for decades as well as conducting original research since 1993 with consumers, executives, companies and youth.

Enough about us. Now to Professor Eikenberry’s comments.

Let me do it in the proverbial top 10:

10.  Consumption philanthropy is an oxymoron and as a name it is just wrong. Nobody buys a product or service because of the cause. The cause is an additional benefit, not the primary reason for purchase. Well-executed programs tying a cause to a product create differentiation, stir emotion, invite storytelling and raise critical additional awareness, action and funds with some segments of the population, creating new advocates.

9.  “Consumption philanthropy is unsuited to create real social change.” Cause-related marketing, when done well, (repeated over years, relevant partners) is about raising additional funds for the cause and creating awareness, often far more than the nonprofit can do itself. Because it is likely short-term and transactional, the goals are more finite. Real social change comes from multi-level, long-term interventions. Cause-related marketing can be part, but in most cases was never invented to have deep social impact.

8.  (As a Gemini I can also talk on both sides of an issue.) Some long-term, dedicated cause marketing actions, notably Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade, Komen’s For the Cure and American Heart’s Go Red for Women, have all (with great strategy and intention) spawned movements that elevated their cause into REAL SOCIAL CHANGE. Breast cancer was rarely talked about in 1993, and the front-cover New York Times article about breast cancer (showing model Veruschka’s mastectomy) was radical, causing great controversy. Today, Avon’s millions of worldwide associates and consumers, and the millions of Komen participants, have joined in partnership to walk, talk, sell products, provide support and lobby governments to affect change regarding these diseases.

7.  “Consumption philanthropy distracts our attention from the neediest causes.” I don’t agree. Because companies large and small must demonstrate their “value with values,” a phrase I like to use, the more esoteric issues have opportunity to partner for greater visibility and fundraising. Child bereavement, teenage pregnancy, human trafficking and more were but a few years ago just a few orphan causes without company tie-ins.

6.  “Consumption philanthropy…distracts it’s participants from collective solutions.” Our most recent research and that of our friends at BBMG, does not view cause consumers as a homogeneous market, but one of many segments. People respond to programs and engage in many ways, suited to their needs, lifestages and desires. Causes and smart cause marketers (think Komen’s Race for the Cure or Avon’s Walk for Breast Cancer), bring thousands together across the country for collective actions to fundraise, create awareness and spur action for their issues.

5.  Consumption philanthropy relies on consumers to “right the world’s wrongs.” Professor Eikenberry says that consumers are ill-suited to do this. From our 15+ years of research and our decades of work, I heartily disagree. From our Cone Millennial Cause Study in 2006, we found this new generation to be the most socially conscious since WWII. This army, 70+ million strong, has an intense desire to help solve social ills and demonstrate this through their volunteering, purchasing and social networking.

4.  Consumption philanthropy is a misnomer, because I believe the consumer is a dying breed and in his/her place rises the “citizen.” Armed with information and choice, citizens demand a social benefit from their employers and those they purchase from. In an age of empowerment, citizens want the option for engagement, from a portion of proceeds at checkout, to full blown, hands-on opportunities to help solve social issues.

3.  “Consumption philanthropy is unsuited to the scale or complexity of the problems it seeks to fix.” Yoplait Save Lids to Save Lives is not aiming to solve breast cancer, but the 10+ year program that has raised over $19 million has shined a light on the disease, continually providing innovative support to breast cancer survivors and raising funds for research and community programs.

2.  Cause marketing, in many cases, has transferred promotional funds from short-term contests to a beneficial donation to a cause. This is a good thing. Yet because cause-related marketing has taken off and many (because citizens, you see, no longer consumers) demand to know what is behind the company they are buying from, cause marketing has evolved. To benefit both the cause and the company, initiatives are more extensive with many elements for engagement, awareness building and fundraising. Indeed, great cause marketing programs invite many participants – AHA Go Red for Women, St. Jude’s Thanks and Giving - to the table for greater impact.

1.  Thanks Professor for igniting this dialogue. Cause marketing celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It has never been about consumption. It was about adding heart to an organization, while benefiting a cause. Twenty-five years later, the function has evolved into many forms – cause branding, corporate citizenship, purpose marketing, goodness and a portion of corporate responsibility too. Citizens of all ages are demanding that companies demonstrate their values in action, rewarding those who really do it well and disregarding and even punishing those who don’t.

The Financial Times just published comprehensive insert on Capitalism. Let me end with this quote: “Capitalism on its deathbed needs a human face.” Linkages between companies and causes, causes and companies, is a needed and powerful way to address social ills. Thanks to all who strive to enhance and evolve cause marketing for the greater good. Here’s to the next 25 years!

- Carol Cone


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