A Cautionary Tale About Cause Marketing

CHARLOTTE, NC (April 22, 2013) – In times of crisis, America has proven itself to be a country of caregivers and helpers. As the greatest capitalistic nation on the planet, we’re also a country of shoppers and spenders.

Since the middle 1970’s, these factors have collided to give rise to a concept called ’cause marketing.’ In short, cause marketing is where a business or product attaches its marketing efforts to a community or national issue, event, charitable cause and most recently – tragedies.

In its purest form, cause marketing can be an altruistic endeavor – a heartfelt form of caring and benefit where a company/product reaches out to show support to those in need. In many instances, this support can raise significant awareness and/or sums of money for the cause. In the most uplifting examples, it can eradicate the issue completely.

At worst, however, cause marketing can be little more than a veiled attempt bring attention and deliver sales to one’s own brand on the backs of victims of misfortune, illness and tragedy.

So it is these days that many are quick to attach their marketing efforts to a cause. Unlike conventional marketing programs that target a proprietary market of customers with the same likes, attitudes and demographic characteristics, cause marketing campaigns have a much wider appeal and are more mass market based. More often than not, associating with a cause will bring an individual business or corporation additional media exposure, fresh marketing opportunities and improved customer perception.

It also can make a lot of money.

The fact that American businesses will spend an estimated $1.75 billion in cause marketing campaigns this year is proof of that. After all, you wouldn’t have countless rooms of marketing types designing cause marketing campaigns unless there was a ‘bump’ in sales on the backside.

Before you think I’m being cynical here, consider that marketing studies show that nearly half of all American consumers – a whopping 47 percent – buy at least one brand or product on a monthly basis because it supports a cause.

How do we know this? Because the same marketers who track the effectiveness of regular marketing strategies also measure how well their cause marketing promotional campaigns drive sales and influence consumer behavior. Some cause marketing campaigns have boosted sales as much as 74 percent according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

That said, it’s little wonder that few places exhibit more cause marketing initiatives than NASCAR. On a weekly basis you can find several teams ‘beating the drum’ about a number of specific causes. In fact, almost every team has a cause, event or foundation it supports these days. The proliferation of these cause marketing campaigns in NASCAR have gotten to the point where its almost seems to be a requirement.

As a longtime NASCAR media and marketing specialist who has participated in multiple cause marketing campaigns, I am extremely concerned about this exploding trend. There is a very fine line between concern and exploitation. In NASCAR – where ‘in focus time’ is measured in seconds and where ‘sip counts,’ driver, sponsor and car brands mentions are all tabulated and distributed to trumpet return on investment (ROI), the line is even narrower.

That hasn’t stopped some NASCAR teams from embracing multiple cause marketing initiatives. In fact, it seems like some organizations/drivers have gone overboard aligning their efforts with everything from triumphs in other sporting arenas to the highlighting victims of disease and terrorist acts.

Frankly, I’m a bit creeped out by all of this. Seriously folks – when did mass murder or a terrorist act become the genesis of a new paint job on a stock car?

I’m not in a position to know the intent of these initiatives nor will I speculate as to the validity of how genuine their concern is. But with the number of these campaigns continually being offered up to NASCAR fans, it does raise the question if there is really concern and caring here or are these efforts little more than an attention grab – a jumping on the bandwagon to associate with the latest bump in public attention regardless of how good or terrible those events may be?

Clearly, a lot of good has come out of the cause marketing efforts of NASCAR, its sponsorship partners, teams and drivers. In many cases, they have raised untold public awareness and countless millions of dollars for charitable organizations, medical research and emergency relief funds.

I get that, I salute it. As a lifelong fan of NASCAR – and one who has had the good fortune to professionally serve the sport for nearly three decades – I am proud of those efforts.

But this is a cautionary tale. As in almost every segment of human interaction, some cause marketing campaigns will have pure motives, others will not. It’s up to you to determine who/which is which. That’s especially true the next time when you decide to make a decision to support a team or driver’s efforts with a donation to a cause or a purchase of their sponsor’s product.

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