Campaigns built around charitable efforts have become a staple of marketing strategies for many companies, tying sales to benefits to everything from Hurricane Katrina victims and breast cancer research to veterinary care for homeless pets.
Patrons at Legal Sea Foods could dig into its Haitian rum-infused bread pudding this month with the assurance their dessert was a socially responsible choice. The Boston-based seafood chain set aside all proceeds from the dish for Haiti relief efforts through a donation to UNICEF and Partners in Health.
Such campaigns, built around charitable efforts, have become a staple of marketing strategies for many companies, tying sales to benefits for everything from Hurricane Katrina victims and breast cancer research to veterinary care for homeless pets.
“Once it was just this niche thing, and now it’s generally recognized as part of the marketing mix, just like event sponsorship,” said Rich Maiore, vice president for Boston public relations firm Cone Inc.
Cone helped popularize cause marketing in the 1980s with campaigns such as shoe manufacturer Rockport’s “Walk for the Health of It” campaign to promote exercise.
In recent years, companies have given more attention to the relationship between charities and their brand.
“In the old days, it was the boss’ pet charity,” Maiore said. “Now, we sit down with clients and ask, ‘What are your objectives? What feels right for the brand? What are other companies doing?’ ”
A 2008 survey by Cone indicated that 79 percent of consumers are willing to switch from one brand to another that is associated with a good cause. And “millennials,” the vast demographic group of young people born after 1980, are particularly receptive to cause marketing, industry experts say.
In lieu of a Super Bowl ad, Pepsi-Cola last month launched the Refresh Project, a year-long campaign that sets aside $20 million in grants for charitable projects. On a Web page, the public can vote on which projects to support.
“This is a very good idea if they execute and if it’s a good fit for what the brand stands for,” said Glenn Kelley, a marketing professor at Babson College. “For years, they’ve been talking about how they’re the choice of the new generation.”
Burtons Grill set aside 15 percent of the proceeds from each check on Jan. 18 at its four restaurants in New England to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to benefit relief efforts to the earthquake-shattered nation. The restaurant said the promotion raised approximately $6,000.
“As a socially conscious organization working with numerous charities in our communities, we really wanted to do our part,” said Debra Jamrok, an assistant manager at the Burtons Grill in Hingham, Mass.
But as so-called “cause marketing” goes mainstream, companies’ promotions are more likely to get lost in the shuffle. And consumers are becoming more skeptical about cause marketing campaigns, demanding more transparency about how their dollars will be allocated.
“The danger really is you have some companies out there trying to do something meaningful and worthwhile, and then you have a bunch of companies trying to jump on the bandwagon,” Kelley said. “Selfishly, they’re really just trying to sell their product.”
While tangible benefits to the charity are important, consumers also need to be convinced they are buying a quality product, said Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. She cited Project Red, the brand started by U2 frontman Bono to benefit the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and licensed to companies such as Gap and Apple.
“All of the products were of good quality,” Miller said. “There was a reason to buy that product beyond the cause.”
As cause marketing matures, a list of guidelines to convince jaded consumers has emerged.
Consumers are suspicious of vague pitches that promise that “a portion of the proceeds” from sales will go to a charity, Cone’s Maiore said.
“We’re seeing programs being more specific about what one purchase equals: one mosquito net, or one vaccine,” he said. “That’s being viewed as more authentic than the old language where you don’t really know what the nonprofit’s doing with it.”
Kelley, the Babson professor, cited a promotion last month by Nordstrom as the wrong way to promote a charitable cause.
The Seattle department store chain staged a one-week promotion tied to the sale of Joseph Abboud suits to benefit Doctors Without Borders.
“This is coming out of left field and just reeks of them trying to sell suits,” Kelley said. “They just say ‘a portion of the proceeds’ to charity. As a consumer, you want to know how much is going to this.”
A Nordstrom spokeswoman said 10 percent of the proceeds from the promotion went to the charity.
Social media has given consumers a way to participate directly in corporate charity. On its Facebook page, discounter Target Corp. invited the public last May to vote how to allocate its $3 million in weekly charitable giving among a dozen nonprofits. The next step, Maiore predicts: mobile apps tied to cause marketing campaigns.
Patriot Ledger writer Steve Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.