Is cause marketing like Bell’s righteous or slimy?

09 Feb

It was hard to turn on the news or check Twitter on Wednesday without hearing about Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” mental health campaign. The country’s biggest phone company was donating five cents from every text message sent and long distance call made on the day to mental health causes.

It’s a noble effort, to be sure, which is why I tried not to be cynical about it, but evidently a number of people on Twitter had that inclination - that there was something disingenuous about the campaign. After all, if Bell really is interested in helping people, why not start with its customers?

When the company first kicked off the campaign in 2010, it looked like it was simply following something similar that Telus had done with breast cancer research earlier in the year. Since then, there has always been the possibility that Bell was merely trying to buy support from neutral third-party groups, to be enlisted down the road whenever lobbying help is needed. This sort of astroturfing - or the artificial creation of grassroots support - is a proud tradition in telecommunications, particularly in the United States, where the likes of AT&T have drawn on everyone from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to Hispanic and Japanese groups to help bend politicians’ ears to their needs.

This may still happen, but it will probably be pretty transparent if and when it does. If submissions arguing in Bell’s favour from the Canadian Mental Health Association start showing up in the government’s next spectrum auction consultation, we’ll probably know what’s up.

What’s more likely at play in the “Let’s Talk” campaign is simple cause marketing, or what is generally defined as a cooperative effort of a for-profit business and a non-profit organization for mutual benefit. What the non-profit organization gets out of it is obvious - not only does it get money from the for-profit entity, it also benefits from the advertising and increased awareness brought about by the campaign.

The for-profit business, on the other hand, also gets something out of it. In almost every case where the cause marketing is done correctly, the company sees real increases in sales since consumers inevitably feel better about dealing with businesses that supposedly have some sort of social conscience. Big corporations and brands including Coca-Cola, American Express and even Tums have attributed big gains to cause marketing campaigns.

If it wasn’t successful in helping companies’ bottom lines, cause marketing wouldn’t be growing rapidly, which it is. Corporate cause sponsorship in North America grew 3.7% to $1.68 billion in 2011 and is projected to increase another 3.1% this year, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report.

What differentiates cause marketing from regular philanthropy - and this is what likely gives some people that dirty feeling - is that it is always driven by profit and self-interest. Plain old charity, on the other hand, is done without expecting anything in return. As academics Goran Svensson and Gary Wood have noted, cause marketing is therefore essentially “commercial righteousness manipulation… of the consumer.”

Chris Rosica, CEO of Rosica Strategic Public Relations, puts it more plainly in this video where he’s selling the idea at a marketing conference. “It’s a business-building strategy. You have a profit motive in mind and there’s nothing wrong with that but you have to get involved with a charity that you care about, so it has to be authentic,” he says.

If there’s ever any doubt about whether an effort is cause marketing or pure philanthropy, advertising usually settles the question. If the company is actually spending money to publicize the cause - as Bell clearly did with all the Let’s Talk billboards around town - rather than just simply donating those funds, then it’s cause marketing.

A good number of academics have debated the ethics of this type of marketing campaign and the conclusions are varied. No less than Milton Friedman, one of history’s biggest champions of free markets and capitalism, argued against corporate charity of any kind, saying that it was effectively stealing somebody’s money to give to someone else. In his definition, that meant charities were profiting off of shareholders, but the essence of the argument can also be applied to customers. In other words, if a company can afford to throw money at charities, shouldn’t it be able to lower prices on its products and services in the first place?

For the charities, taking such money and increased awareness is a no-brainer. Many are cash strapped and could do wonderful things if only they had more resources, so it’s hard to think ill of them in this scenario. Still, when it comes to cause marketing campaigns, there is an inescapable whiff of Ponzi scheme about them.

On the surface of such efforts, it looks like everyone wins: the charity gets more resources, the company gets more sales, the customer feels warm and fuzzy for doing business with a company that apparently cares. But when you dig deeper, it’s not quite that simple, is it?


Posted by on February 9, 2012 in bell


10 Responses to Is cause marketing like Bell’s righteous or slimy?

  1. bellocose

    February 9, 2012 at 1:15 am

    Bell is getting too much mileage on this. Worse yet they force all their newsmedia that they own now to flog this campaign. “we’re proud to talk about “let’s talk” “.

  2. Derek Scott (@dscott_23)

    February 9, 2012 at 1:32 am

    I believe it was Microsoft, a little while ago, that got some serious flak for trying the same type of thing through Twitter during one of the more recent natural disasters (I’m thinking it was the situation in Haiti, but my memory’s really bad, so someone please correct me on this).

    They offered to donate such-and-such an amount for every retweet. They took so much heat for it, they made a public apology, and said they would immediately donate to the cause, without the need for people to retweet anything. But in a situation like this, where I suppose the people who need the help aren’t quite as visible, and the need doesn’t seem quite as urgent, people are generally OK with it.

    Each person will obviously draw their lines in different places, but it’s interesting to see.

  3. Seppo

    February 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

    The bottom line is that the cash-strapped charities get badly needed money. The smell does not matter to them, money is money.

    For Bell this is simply good capitalistic marketing business, they are not stupid, they have done their due diligence and alternative cost (e.g. vs traditional marketing) math. As such arguments about stealing from shareholders are nonsense. In their internal math Bell is just trying a new effective advertising tool which just happens to help some third party in the process…

    In a perfect world all these charities would get their funding from benevolent people and companies, no strings attached, but that is not how real world works…

  4. myschoolhouserocks

    February 9, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I’d like to see the charitable tax rebate Bell will receive for donating money. Good cause but is it selfless? And I just can’t stand big tooth Clara Hughes!

    • Torontoworker

      February 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Exactly! I’ve often wondered what the tax break is that all these companies are claiming for themselves on your behalf.

      The other issue I have is point of sale giving. I’m tired of giving to the local Canadian Tire managers favorite charity. Who get’s on HIS list for the thousands of dollars collected? Who is left off HIS list? Same with the local LCBO who seem to pick and choose on their own. There should be a ‘rolling’ list of charities and any tax breaks get rolled back into the pot to be donated to these groups.

      The worst abuse of point of sale is Heather Riesman’s (Indigo/Chapters) reading charity where they try to grab you for a donation upon check out for a ‘buck’ that goes towards a reading program for kids. On the surface it sounds ok… until you research the fact that she’s getting a tax break for a charity that she formed that requires the material to be bought from her stock by these reading groups. Double dipping!

      Sally Ann get most of my donations.

      And another thing while I’m on a roll…

      Please, everyone STOP donating to these clothing boxes you see in the corner of malls! They’re all private companies collecting the clothing to sell overseas for huge profits as reported recently in the Toronto Star. They said the truck drivers picking up clothes can make $12K a MONTH!! Now these people are physically attacking each other and setting each others boxes on fire at night. The true charities have been locked out of the market by these for profit groups who pay big money to the mall owners to let them place their boxes and remove the charity groups boxes. Take your clothes to the Salvation Army stores and not the boxes these parasites have placed in malls. All of them were found by the Star to fraudulently label their boxes as proceeds going to charities when the only charity receiving any money is the local Ferrari and Porsche dealerships…

      Rant over.

  5. Sam I R Davies

    February 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Great post Peter. Very informative. My feeling has been that it is pretty slimy. I can speak from personal experience that mental health treatment is severely underfunded, as is obvious to anyone who has first hand experience in this type of struggle. In other words - the deficits are so bad that any help is welcomed at any cost. Sadly - your cynical take is right on the money. In reality, this is more a manipulative marketing ploy than a genuine attempt at helping people. I’d kill to see the actual strategic plan for this initiative…

  6. Marc Venot

    February 10, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Maybe you can provide us with some numbers like how much did Bell paid, the client share and if that increased or not the regular traffic? Also it may be more complicated since in this domain it’s not only the sender that has to pay but also the receiver.

  7. Ben

    February 10, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Great article. I also enjoyed your article in the Globe on C-11. Right on point.

    In the third-to-last paragraph of this article, I think you may have meant to say “Milton Friedman”.

    • petenowak2000

      February 10, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Oops, my bad! Thanks for the catch, it’s fixed now.


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