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The Noble Distractions of CSR Part III: Cause Marketing

This is the third in a three-part series of articles exploring some ‘noble distractions’ of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  Noble distractions are defined as strategies and actions that are good to do, but misaligned with core business objectives.  Often, these are bolt-on environmental initiatives that fail to fulfill the promises of CSR.  These distractions carry a price to your business and to sustainability.

Multiple surveys over the past year have shown that the overwhelming majority of consumers believe companies should behave like good citizens (2010 Edelman GoodPurpose Study) but also question corporations’ honesty (2010 StrategyOne Survey). Where once it could be taken for granted that consumers would believe the claims made by trusted brands, even historically dominant brands are increasingly compelled to prove their environmental integrity to consumers.  In response, corporations look for ways to authenticate their righteous intents through marketing.

Cause Marketing, for one example, is dear to the modern brand and marketing experts because of its ability to predictably perpetuate a transactional relationship between Corporation and Consumer with doing good.  Quite simply, Cause Marketing moves product.  Cause Marketing contextualizes the sustainability conversation within the comfortable Company-Consumer paradigm by attempting to convince the consumer that s/he is engaged in an authentic experience of charity alongside the brand.  This is a false construct, but is not without benefits.  Companies reap the benefits of products sales, consumer loyalty and halo.  Non-profits enjoy financial gain and visibility to new potential constituents.  And consumers get to feel good again about consumption.  What’s wrong with any of that?

Let’s put a point on it: Cause Marketing is a great marketing strategy, but I’m not convinced it is a sound CSR strategy.  Often corporations and consumers confuse it as such.

Following this rubric, this specific type of CSR initiative is undertaken to “do good” under the expectation that the company will enjoy improved brand loyalty, increased profitability, and strengthened market position by addressing social or environmental matters of concern to the company’s customers and other stakeholders.  Many of these campaigns are tied to corporate brand reputation and financial goals, but no other operational goals.  We know from experience that CSR and operational goals are inseparable. Of course failed campaigns have notably invited significant negative blowback, with attendant costs from reputation damage. Such are the most visible expenses assigned to the noble distraction.

Slovenian cultural theorist and capitalism critic Slavoj Zizek likens this kind of Cause Capitalism as fixing with your right hand what you are breaking with your left. The act creates a kind of consumption that delivers financial aid and awareness to the problem it also creating. At its worst, it is presented as a pink ribbon on a toy made with carcinogens. But that is a gross (though not exaggerated) example that simply proves the point. The vast majority of campaigns are less sinister, but no less distracting to corporate performance and the potential for Authentic CSR.

On balance, this is not indicative of failure by so many marketing teams, but rather an indictment of the construct of desperate CSR as manifested through marketing.

As a corporate strategy, Cause Marketing campaigns largely fall into two camps: noble distractions, and authentic representations of a philanthropic corporate mission. The first is interesting because it actually serves to derail the business from its core goals and values, though well intended.

For the latter, authentic representations of corporate value, labeling it “marketing” denigrates it. This is not because Cause Marketing is an inherently deceptive practice. It is because marketing is not the thing itself (like a logo, it is a placeholder in your consumer’s mind for the thing), and is therefore by default, not authentic. Many argue that it’s all we have to communicate with. I do not accept that argument. The reason that there is no replacement for authenticity is because it is so hard to do. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan talks about “The Real” as the unchangeable truth as opposed to a reality based on sense perception. The Real is the antithesis of marketing. CSR should be too.

It’s true that “advertising is the price you pay for not being creative.” It is also true for not being authentic. The resources required to maintain the veneer of authenticity are often greater than the resources required to bring corporate alignment to bear using authentic strategies. Mostly, this veneer is neither malicious nor intentional. It exists in exuberance to do better (by doing good) and in blind spots created by size and lack of alignment.

The future of CSR lies in internalizing CSR as a core business practice, aligning all corporate functions to core business strategic aims and maintaining clear and consistent focus on the values that underlie those aims. Not many argue against that point. Yet clearly, many corporations are playing catch-up to the industry leaders by stitching together patchwork quilts of sustainability.

Companies that address sustainability with their business as opposed to for their business will thrive and move past the noble distractions of CSR.

Read the complete series here:

Part I

Part II

John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.

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One thought on “The Noble Distractions of CSR Part III: Cause Marketing

  1. John,
    I love your writing and you bring up the point that authenticity is the way to go – period. So it is with some consternation that I read you saying that ethical business is too big a stretch and may be in approprite for anything other than Social entrepreneurs. Tell me I miss read your comments in part II!

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