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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Is Cause Marketing Real Advocacy or Consumer Apathy at its Finest?

In the world of nonprofit sponsorship, it’s no secret that cause marketing has rapidly become the most popular method for nonprofits and businesses to simultaneously make money. A lot of money.

According to a recent study, 90% of Americans want companies to tell them the ways they are supporting causes. And 83% of these consumers say that they wish brands would support causes.

Arguably, cause marketing is becoming something of a social movement.

I have seen my fair share of nonprofit marketing: the good, the bad, and the outrageous. My nonprofit experience runs the gamut from granting sick kid’s wishes, to helping torture survivors from around the world and even fundraising for first-class symphony orchestras. (Some days I question whether or not I might be a nonprofit junkie. All signs point to yes.)

These experiences have led me to wonder— are cause-centric promotions a good thing? Or bad thing?

I have worked on cause marketing campaigns that brought in millions and millions of dollars. The supremacy of slapping a logo on a product is often mind-boggling to me. If a water bottle, toy, pen, key ring, t-shirt, water heater, or whatever, has a nonprofit’s logo on it— you are more likely to buy it. And that purchase can bring copious amounts of cash through the doors of nonprofits. Nonprofits that otherwise would not have received that money, since the business is producing the product. This is a good thing, right?

Well, I’m not so sure. Why do I think it could be a bad thing? The argument behind consumption philanthropy comes to mind. Especially when I think about some of the absurd cause marketing campaigns that have been produced in recent years, like Susan G. Komen and KFC's notable folly. Moreover, it seems that the largest nonprofits with the largest budgets get the big bucks— while the smaller nonprofits that are in dire need of funding get left out of these highly commercialized campaigns.

Which leads me to the agonizingly, rhetorical question that I have yet to resolve in my mind.

Are consumption philanthropists naively drawn in by tantalizing cause marketing campaigns? Or, do cause marketers actually create accessible avenues for advocacy?

I guess it varies from campaign to campaign. But I do feel that a shopper’s indolent contribution to an already enormous nonprofit budget tends to leave the smaller nonprofits, that can hardly keep their doors open, out in the bitter cold.

Audra Buras is currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Los Angeles, California. She has over six years of experience in the nonprofit sector, and recently received her M.A. in Communication Studies from Arizona State University. She also holds a B.S. in Public Relations from Northern Arizona University.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog