When big brands join awareness campaigns, fit matters

    (AP photo/Mel Evans)

    (AP photo/Mel Evans)

    Corporate sponsorship of illness awareness can be a powerful tool to raise money. But if the brand and the cause don’t allign, the relationship could backfire.

    Advocacy organizations have for decades used awareness campaigns, complete with ribbons, walks, and celebrities, to boost education and fundraising. But what happens when big businesses get involved?

    Deborah Small is a professor of marketing and psychology at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She says advocacy marketing has three players: the business, the organization, and the consumer.

    “It’s particularly attractive to a company if they can link up with a cause that their consumer base cares about, and that’s why we see so many cause marketing campaigns with breast cancer,” Small explained. “The biggest consumers of packaged goods in particular are women. And this is an issue that is near and dear to most women’s hearts.”

    Organizations benefit from big brands endorsing their causes. They not only get exposure but proceeds from people who might not otherwise become contributors to their fund-raising campaigns.

    “We think it often tends to be revenue that comes from customers who wouldn’t otherwise donate to those causes,” says Small. “So there’s a segment of the population that’s going to donate to charity regardless but most of the population is not going to donate to these causes but they’re still going to buy their breakfast cereal and their cosmetics.”

    And what about the consumer? What do they get out of this arrangement? They get to feel good about themselves.

    “Think about a person wearing a pair sneakers that has the pink ribbon on it or a T-shirt or carrying a coffee mug at work that has the logo of a cause on it. Well, that signals not only to the purchaser, but also to everybody they interact with, that they’re a good person that cares about a cause,” Small says. “That has real social value to consumers.”

    Small cautions that corporate endorsements can backfire if customers suspect a brand has conflicting motivations.

    “We’ve seen many examples of this from Kentucky Fried Chicken and other companies whose image is not necessarily so socially beneficial,” warns Small. “When they try to do this sometimes consumers react negatively because it feels hypocritical.”

    It’s becoming increasingly clear that for this kind of relationship to work, Small says, the cause, the company and the product need to align.

    “Otherwise, consumers just react really negatively to it, they see it as hypocritical…” Small says. “They don’t know what to make of it when, for instance, a food brand that’s perceived as not healthy is supporting some health-related cause. That just doesn’t feel right to consumers.”

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