Is your strategy patently obvious, pathetic or parasitic?

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.

Related entries:
Naming a product line pt.69
Nurture people, not products (read the comments too)

Related threads in the forum:
Labels and branding (strays a bit but an excellent thread)
Business and Charity, and marketing an image

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  1. Tonya says:

    Good info for wannabe designpreneurs. We need to be reminded that all the crowdsourcing, web 2.0, 3P ideas will not help us if our product does not have intrinsic value to our customers. As fascinated as I am with marketing my line as the anti-congomerate brand, I want my products to be designed well and made well so that when these marketing trends go out, I can still have a business.

  2. sarah says:

    Hi everyone!

    Yes, I agree that this trend is increasing annoying and almost a “must do” in today’s social climate but more often then not, done poorly.

    BUT, how to do it right? I feel like we are all part of the problem because like it or not at the end of the day, we are still selling consumption. THIS HAS BEEN DRIVING ME CRAZY!! Why? Personally, I think it’s a good thing that we are shrinking our tastes and budgets, however as an entrepreneur, it is a reality that I have to deal with in a different light. How to start and run a business selling non essentials?

    Struggling with this in my head I randomly encountered a woman who had started many businesses and was willing to meet with me to discuss my direction. I will try to summarize;

    – Look into your core values and why you started the brand or company

    – Is there anyway that this core value system can be tied to your brand in a focused and clear way

    – Don’t push it too hard, let it develop like any brand does and be open to change

    – If there is no strong passion behind the brand/founder then it’s not worth trying to market it as something it is not; greenwashing, pink charity etc. You can, but it won’t get you anywhere and it can dilute your brand by confusing your message.

    – If yes, and tied appropriately to the brand this creates a valuable and longer lasting definition in the consumers mind; “Brand associated with meaningful recognition” (or something like that!) Is a concept that I read about recently which is helping me fine tune my message

    – Step back and look again at yourself, your brand and brainstorm about why you are here and what you are doing and … BE REAL.

    I know that this is vague stuff and if anyone wants more specific advice let me know!



  3. Dawn says:

    This rang a bell with me in regards to a purchase I made from a “no sweat shop” company’s website. The products I received were low quality, and I never ordered from them again, especially since there were also higher quality options.

    The best mix, I think, is a good message AND a good product. Why can’t we have both?

    Thanks for the thought food – I love this, uh, blog?!?

  4. Leah Barrett says:

    After producing my line for 3 years I decided last season to add this paragraph to the last page of my brochure. The product was first and foremost, and occupied 25 of the 26 page brochure, but this message was also in there on the last page.
    “We acknowlegde the contribution of our hand embroiderers and support their skills and ethical labour practices. Jabberdust adheres to good environmental principles producing only what is ordered, offering natural fibers, natural dyeing processes, and green packaging.”

    2 reasons for doing this; it’s true these practices are part of my business model anyway, and I wanted to speak to the conscious consumer who may have questions about these issues when buying. Making the issues a key marketing strategy is parasitic, but stating them if they are part of your business practices is ok I think. And in these highly competitive times its best to rule out conditions for not buying if you can. Enjoyed the article, thanks! But I don’t want to be any of the 3 P’s.

  5. Hi Kathleen, This is the first time I’m reading your blog. I love this post and how you say it like it is with a great argument as well. In India organizations often sell craft products with a highly moral overtone of “you should buy this because otherwise our heritage will be lost”, bubt very often the quality and the design of the product isn’t great. You are absolutely right in saying that the product should be sold on it’s own merit and the other facts (if indeed it is eco friendly) can be a marketing bonus.

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