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Cause Marketing: Agencies without a Cause

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These days, when you purchase ordinary necessities such as soap or insurance for your car, you may get confused. Are you purchasing a product? Handing money over to a mega-corporation?  Or are you supporting a nonprofit enterprise intent on making world right?

No worries – the confusion is normal. It’s all because of “cause marketing”: a multimillion dollar  effort where corporations embed do-good initiatives into their marketing campaigns. Cause marketing has become the norm in an industry so depleted by consumer mistrust they have nowhere else to turn.

Not that cause marketing is exactly new. In the grand old days companies merely sponsored events, their names plastered around county fairs or on the uniforms of high school basketball teams. Or they launched internal United Way-type campaigns where they set goals for their employees to reach. The marketing value was humble: a friendly nod from an appreciative public and a morale boost to employees.

Recently, though, these efforts have become the brand face. Consider Dove soap. Owned by Unilever, their marketing agency of choice has long been Ogilvy and Mather. Founder David Ogilvy was the mind behind the Dove-as-beauty-bar equation: he boasted that he could have just as easily positioned Dove as a cleanser for men. So much for authenticity.

These days Ogilvy and Mather is positioning Dove as the Defender of Women in their “Campaign for Real Beauty”, which, among other things, is anti-anti-aging and pro-women-with-real-curves. They also host the Dove Self Esteem Fund (DSEF) who aims, they say on their Web site: “…to educate and inspire young girls…which ultimately protects and nurtures their body-related self-esteem.” Naturally they have a self-esteem social network that tells us: “Be part of the Dove Community….Create a Profile here…” in what they call “The self-esteem zone.”

Cool, right? So, here’s what they don’t tell you. Social networking is a great way to get people online where deft marketers can identify their demographic, glean content about their buying habits, and engage “members” in contest, surveys, and other initiatives geared to trigger the all-important buzz. Oh – and ultimately strengthen their profits which is the point in the first place.

Then, there’s that little matter of hypocrisy. Some of Unilever’s other products support the very un-self-esteem-like messages at the core of Dove’s concerns. Take their anti-anti-aging stance. On Unilever’s Ponds cold cream Web site they say: “Pond's was at the forefront of color management developments in Asia and pioneered the use of AHAs for anti-ageing in the US.” Yes, Ponds has been at the forefront...are we to believe Dove is intending to end it?

Besides, how seriously can we take their claims, anyway? Face it – what does a palm-oil infused synthetic soap have to do with a woman’s “real curves.” Last I checked – nothing. Or how about this proclamation from Unilever: “… our products all have one thing in common. They help you get more out of life.” Dove soap? Pond’s cold cream? More out of life? You’ve got to be kidding.

The audacity of cause marketing isn’t restricted to women’s beauty products. Liberty Mutual, and their marketing agency Hill Holiday, has really pushed the envelope with their “Responsibility” campaign. In the interests of full disclosure, I briefly consulted on the campaign several years back. Their intention is to integrate the Liberty Mutual brand into the concept of responsibility. This goes beyond getting claims processed in time or calling customers back within 24 hours. This is about ethical responsibility or, as they say on their Web site “doing the right thing.”

Throughout the campaign they provide ample examples of responsibility. During the last election, for example, one ad showed a disabled person pushing her wheelchair through rain, traffic and other barriers to get to the voting booth. Another showed an elderly African American man of seemingly modest means who lost his wallet and – low and behold – a younger African American man who called to return it. You can find both at Liberty Mutual’s Web site.

Examples of responsibility? Maybe, but these ads are also ruthlessly condescending. Are we expected to think the younger black man would normally dash off with the wallet and spend the proceeds on heroin?  Or that disabled woman would normally ignore her duty as a citizen, what with the wheelchair and all. Naturally, they have the “Responsibility Project” with, yes, a social network where people discuss their thoughts on such morally provocative issues as the octuplets and whether fighting should be allowed in hockey games.

Still, I don’t get it. What does all this have to do with Liberty Mutual? The site, while prompting other people to be responsible doesn’t show how they’re responsible themselves. They do take lots of credit, though. On their Web site they say:  “It all began with a single commercial that gave voice to an entire movement. It prompted thousands of people to start thinking and talking about responsibility, to celebrate the positive things in their lives and the world around them…” Wow! An insurance company did all that!

Then there’s USA Network who hosts such character-laden shows as Monk, House and Burn Notice. Their marketers recently launched the “show us your character” campaign highlighting real life “characters”. The photos on the site are amazing – artfully projecting the real characters among us everywhere. They almost make us forget that USA hosts it prerequisite Character’s Project, where you can create your own character, join yet another social network and, doubtless, send USA valuable demographic information.

OK – but why not? Why not use marketing to do some good in the world? Frankly, I’m all for doing good and I even dabble now and then. So, here’s the problem: these initiatives will undoubtedly run their economic course and unlike, say, Mother Theresa, the companies will move on. Their efforts will be yesterday’s news and no one, even the companies, will be remotely interested – if they are, anyway.

This is summed up on Hill Holiday’s site about the Liberty Mutual campaign:

Hollywood loves sequels. Advertising, well, not so much. But when a campaign is working for a client, it can be pretty hard to pull the plug in favor of something new and shiny just because it’s, um, new and shiny. If the new Liberty Mutual spots you’ve started seeing in the last week or so look familiar, they were meant to.

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Biography Communications expert, author, and entrepreneur Susan F. Benjamin is founder of Greater Voice Enterprises. Her short features and interviews with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to leading thinkers are aired online and on am/fm (more...)
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