Cause Marketing: Moving Beyond Corporate Slacktivism

SlacktivistEarlier this year, Timothy Ogden wrote an article entitled, “Why Cause Marketing Can Actually Backfire.” The article, published on, asks the question: is cause marketing good for brands? Ogden also seeks to transcend a corporate agenda by implying that cause marketing is doing more harm than good to the world at large.

Of course, Ogden is wrong. His argument casually disregards the overwhelming statistics that prove that cause marketing bolsters consumer engagement. He theorizes that consumers will become less likely to individually support charities if they align themselves with cause-friendly brands, but fails to recognize the link between brand and consumer identity, which is only being strengthened through social media channels.

While Timothy Ogden rightly calls for more transparent cause marketing initiatives, he doesn’t touch on the lucrative impact cause marketing initiatives can have on brands’ social media engagement strategies.

Ogden attempts to convince us that because so many brands have adopted a charitable cause, their involvement with those charities is becoming increasingly irrelevant to consumers. To illustrate his point, he cites the ubiquity of pink ribbons on brands’ websites during October, commemorating National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Since it’s October, I think it’s worth revisiting his article to examine the validity of his arguments.

Timothy Ogden touts this breed of passive cause marketing as ineffectual and “laughable”, even though, by his own admission, “there’s plenty of research that shows consumers will pick a brand with a good cause attached to it over one without.” In a misplaced effort to prove the ineffectiveness of cause marketing campaigns associated with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Ogden undermines all charitable efforts related to breast cancer in the last ten years stating, “the death rate from breast cancer hasn’t changed in a decade, despite the ubiquity of breast cancer awareness cause marketing.” Such statements exhibit a cynicism that extends beyond merely jibing cause marketing, to question the efficacy of medical charities.

Ogden claims that consumers are actually being turned off by cause marketing, though he has no evidence to support this fact other than a link to an opinion piece that Brie Cadman wrote for, in which she chastises brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade for supporting breast cancer financially, when alcohol has been linked to cancer. While there might be a sense of hypocrisy here, brands’ charitable engagements will ultimately be judged by consumers. Would Ms. Cadman have Mike’s Hard Lemonade return the $500,000 they donated to the Beast Cancer Research Foundation?

For his part, Ogden slaps Chambord and KFC on their proverbial wrists asking, “what do … fried chicken and liqueur have to do with breast cancer awareness?” By Mr. Ogden’s logic, The Ben and Jerry’s Foundation should probably realign their charitable efforts around curing the brain-freeze.

Ogden also cites “behavioral research” that implies that consumers are less likely to donate to charities if they purchase products from brands that support causes. If there is any truth to such claims, it only speaks to the increasingly symbiotic relationship brands have with consumers. Consumers are beginning to recognize their purchasing power as an expression of their ideologies.

Such behavior falls under the blanket of “slacktivism,” a portmanteau combining the words “slacker” and “activism”. This term is beginning to gain traction on sites like Mashable to describe the act of passively supporting causes in order to tap into the satisfaction that accompanies philanthropy, without having to do any heavy-lifting (or heavy spending). Besides casting light on the link between charity and self-interest, is slacktivism doing any real harm?

Quite the contrary. According to a recent article on Mashable, while slacktivists who promote a cause through social media are no more likely to donate money to charitable causes, they are:

  • Twice as likely to volunteer their time
  • Twice as likely to take part in events like charity walks
  • More than twice as likely to buy products or services from companies that supported the cause
  • Three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of their cause
  • More than four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact political representatives

This data is interesting because it shows a clear link between social media engagement and responsiveness to cause marketing. If companies can get consumers engaged about a cause through social channels (even passively), it can stimulate them to purchase those companies’ products and services.

Timothy Ogden takes issue with brands adopting ambiguous cause marketing campaigns, what might be called corporate slacktivism. He calls for greater transparency, asking companies to inform customers how and why they’ve adopted a particular cause. He also feels that brands have the responsibility to tell consumers how much money is being given to charities and how that money is being used.

When charities are concerned, transparency is always welcome. However, I believe Mr. Ogden has missed the bigger picture. Cause marketing presents an excellent opportunity to engage with consumers. In addition to reaching out to slacktivists who are already socially promoting their adopted cause (the ones more than twice as likely to convert), brands should also seize the opportunity to raise cause awareness through social channels. If unengaged consumers can be converted into slacktivists, they will in turn be more motivated to encourage others to support the brand’s cause. Even if this doesn’t lead to consumers donating more capital to charities directly, it can lead to them donating more of their time to evangelize the cause. Therefore, by linking your business to a cause and promoting it through social channels, you have the opportunity to both directly and indirectly recruit brand ambassadors.



One Response to “Cause Marketing: Moving Beyond Corporate Slacktivism”

  1. Chris April 19, 2012 at 8:37 am #

    Great rebuttal, Jesse. I think you’re right on about every primary point. I would like to just note, however, that this bit seems unfair and inaccurate:

    “Such statements exhibit a cynicism that extends beyond merely jibing cause marketing, to question the efficacy of medical charities.”

    I don’t think it can be called cynicism to state a verifiable observation (and you don’t call the truth of his observation into question), which he seems to be doing. His fault-finding I think is directed squarely at the activists (e.g. cause marketing, slactivists), without any attempt to pass judgment on charities (whatever blame he might actually ascribe to them).

    While it’s natural and understandable for readers to infer culpability from that stat where you suggest, I don’t think he is trying to imply it. So, I think you misaccuse him on this one point, and in so doing fail to call him out on yet another non sequitur. Activists (or charities for that matter) can’t be expected to take the blame for failure in the ultimate goal (finding a cure) but only for their part — in this case, funding.

    If he wants to attack our failure at finding a cure, he should be talking about researchers, not funders. And even then, he couldn’t make a generic complaint such as he did and be justified in slapping the researchers’ wrists. He errs a great deal in that particular complaint, but it seemed to me that you missed the real reason to call him out on it.

    And as a side thought, “question[ing] the efficacy of medical charities” doesn’t necessarily imply cynicism. That’s a perfectly valid exercise. What would be unacceptable is the dismissing their effectiveness (which is perhaps what you meant) without questioning or investigating. The effectiveness of anyone or anything should bear up under scrutiny, otherwise it *should* be done away with or improved to be effective.

    At any rate, my verbose complaint aside, this was a smartly defended rebuttal. Nice piece, Jesse.

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