There are a variety of ways to express the philosophical values inherent in your company to consumers. These strategies range from patently obvious to pathetic to the parasitic. I call this the three P’s of authenticity. While the patently obvious -better known as cause marketing- can be dicey if not well done, you want to avoid pathetic and parasitic at all costs. Unfortunately, it seems that many designer wannabes tend to favor the latter two. First a run down.
Patently Obvious: Cause Marketing
While I’m not a fan of cause marketing personally, I think it is the most authentic of the 3Ps. Cause marketing means you donate x dollars to a given charity as a percentage of sales or for returning a yogurt lid or something. This can be very effective as repeated studies show a high percentage of consumers favor brands who use these strategies. Efficacy of dollars donated is another thing and the cause for sometimes cantankerous debate. The reason I feel this cause marketing is most authentic is because, as one manager said, “When you’re spending from your marketing budget and not your philanthropy budget, you have to look for that return on investment.” At least they’re honest about it.
Probably the best contrary opinion on cause marketing in these parts was posted by Alison.
I want my charity dollars to go to organisations that fund action. Since businesses typically fund vague, broad-reaching campaigns that touch everyone similarly, these tend to be more like awareness campaigns than like, say, a scholarship program for an orphanage in India. Increasing your margins so that you can fund an organisation that I do not care about (or that I care about and already fund) then you are reducing the viability of your business by increasing your prices and therefore reducing value. By marketing themselves with something peripheral or completely irrelevant to the business, the business is telling me that they don’t trust me to buy their product based on the merits of the product. That they think I have to be bribed or blackmailed into buying it based on fuzzy feelings about something like AIDS or “the environment” or whatever. Since the business obviously knows their product very well, I trust their judgement that it is not good value and just buy someone else’s product instead.
This is the category in which many start ups fall and it’s been discussed here before. I’m not going to link the offending party who inspired today’s entry but suffice to say, most in this category practically beg for sales appealing to personal values. This usually falls in the vein of “I’m a good person, I recycle, I’m not a sweat shop, I give a[n undefined portion of the proceeds] to charity (assuming there’s something to give) and I’m uber cool, so buy my incredibly overpriced tee shirts”.
With a pitch like this, you haven’t sold anyone on the value of your product. How have you conveyed the value of it? If we want to support a charity, more of the money will go to the charity with direct checks rather than filtering it through you. These days you can’t be heard amid the clamor and din of everyone else who’s also making these claims. And even if this argument were convincing, it’ll take more than your propensity for buying organic fruit (in this particular case) to convince us of your social commitments. People are eco-fatigued. If you embrace this as your marketing strategy, you’re better off making a clean break and embracing cause marketing rather than this ambiguous pit. [Icing on the cake is that many of these sites feature copy comprised of 6 point font on flash pages with ambiguous navigation.] The point is, you must learn to disambiguate the value of who you are (a good person) from the value of your product. If you must rely on personal appeals and your product fails, it’s not that you’re a bad person; it’s that your product is likely mediocre and/or is poorly marketed.
The last of the three Ps is the least authentic. These are companies that develop products -nearly always a tee shirt- that are pegged or targeted to “awareness” of a particular infirmary. In other words, they sell shirts for autism awareness, cancer awareness, catering to a whole host of human frailties. I describe these appeals as parasitic because without the ailment, the product would have no reason to exist. In a manner of speaking, one has a vested interest in the continuation of the illness or condition for without it, there would be no revenue. If this is all your product has to stand on, you don’t have much going for you.
I don’t see products designed especially for said populations the same way. Based on the needs of unique populations, these aren’t parasitic but complimentary. Examples of worthwhile products designed around conditions are things like compression garments for burn victims, clothing designed to reduce tactile sensitivity or apparel designed to fit dwarfs or perhaps they prefer “little people” (pardon my ignorance, no deprecation is intended).
One last word of advice if you feel compelled to develop “awareness” products; is this something that the average “sufferer” would support? They’d probably prefer proceeds went to research or cures. Is it possible they could be offended or that you could be perceived as capitalizing on their infirmity? Is it possible the charity you’ve chosen to support is highly controversial in their community? You can’t assume it’s not. If you don’t do your homework, you may be surprised to find yourself the target of a boycott from the “victims” themselves. You may also be surprised to know that some people are offended that their “illness” is perceived to require a cure. It serves no purpose to have good intentions and subvert it all by creating ill will for your company where there had previously been none.