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Corporate Charity Work: Give Back Without Gimmicks or Give Me a Break

by Gregg Lipman  |  
April 16, 2013

Recently, I've noticed that charity, that noble concept of giving back to those less fortunate, has fallen to victim to—no surprise here—commercialism.

Charitable efforts continue to play a significant role in our culture, traditions, and identity, as they have since the beginnings of civilization. According to Giving USA’s Annual Report on Philanthropy, Americans donated nearly $300 billion dollars in 2012. (BILLION, folks. That’s more than the GDP of say Greece. Or Finland. Or the Kardashians.)

As you’ve probably noticed, there’s been a veritable explosion of charitable initiatives in recent years. Not from your local church, Red Cross, or United Way, or even the Girl Scouts (Thin Mint or maybe the nouveau Dulce de Leche, anyone?) but from the vast galaxy of for-profit consumer brands. Why this explosion? Call me a cynic, but we marketers have the data to back up the fact that Americans across socio-economic strata want to get involved and make an impact, and will reward a company that they perceive as making charitable contributions on their behalf. Good for the consumer–good for the brand—good for those in need. A win-win-win.

One noteworthy example is the venerable Newman’s Own, which started giving away all of its after-profits to charity way back in 1982.

Paul Newman’s brainchild paved the way for hundreds of other companies, and it inspired the one-for-one purchase-to-donation model practiced today by TOMS shoes and trendy eyewear company Warby-Parker. Most recently, the (RED) campaign has partnered with companies including Nike, Gap, Bugaboo and Starbucks to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa, and the One Laptop Per Child and Charity. Water initiatives have both achieved a great deal of success and garnered enormous amount of media attention and goodwill. Each of those campaigns appear to provide seemingly altruistic programs for the common good, without an overly zealous attachment to its host.

But has the whole idea of branded charity and its almost ubiquitous presence at retail, on packaging, in advertising, on television, via celebrity endorsements, on apparel, etc. become so widespread, so expected that consumers will become progressively numb to it? Are charitable campaigns perilously close to becoming counter-productive? Have they become white noise that actually begins to demotivate consumer behavior?

Take, for example…

StreetKing, an energy drink that wears its gang-cred on its graffitied sleeve, is endorsed by 50-Cent and, by the way, also provides a meal to a hungry child through the United Nations’ World Food Programme, with every purchase made.

Sheetz, the massive convenience store chain, sells two private label charity  products: Buy this Water. Help Kids. (water) and Buy this Energy Drink. Help Kids. (Yup, this is an energy drink talking.) That reminds me of the original cover of National Lampoon: ‘Buy this magazine or I shoot this dog.’

The Oregon Public House, a pub in Portland, purports a lovely sentiment and/or subversive marketing ploy:

Hmmm. Drinking for charity? I’ll buy into that, however far-fetched it may be.

So, I ask, what’s next? Fly Business Class, Give Hope? File your Taxes, Prevent Malaria?

Look, I get it. Businesses are playing a relevant role in helping pull the loose change out of your pocket (which you might not have done on your own) and redistributing it to a worthy cause. But given this undeniable rise in branded charity, can marketers simply choose charity as a marketing strategy without the gimmicks, the spin, and the self-congratulatory back-patting?

Tell me that your charity work is a pillar of your brand. Tell me you do it all the time instead of sometimes. To be effective, differentiated, and become a positive voice for change, branded charity--like “regular” charity---needs to be well intentioned and believable. Not accompanied by a shot of 50 Cent’s favorite energy drink.

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Gregg S. Lipman is Managing Partner at CBX, a brand agency specializing in research & insights, strategy, innovation, design, environments & architecture, activation & engagement. CBX clients include: Del Monte, General Mills, Kimberly Clark, A&P, Pathmark, Saks Fifth Avenue Off Fifth, Lord and Taylor, Wawa, Sunoco and Petro China.

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