Paul Holmes 12 Mar 2012 // 7:00AM GMT
At the blog operated by public affairs and corporate communications consultancy kglobal, senior vice president Peter Allen asks whether motives matter in cause-related marketing, and lays out a cogent argument for judging companies on their actions rather than engaging in an ultimately futile attempt to discern the motives for giving. “Impact trumps ideology,” he says. “The hungry child who is getting a meal, or the clinic that can buy medical supplies to treat at-risk people without access to healthcare, don’t give a fig about why Brand X donated. We as consumers can’t take umbrage if the end result is that real people in need get the help they deserve.” Moreover, “shared value doesn’t require shared values. By contributing to an important issue or cause, Brand X is creating shared value for its company, customers, community, employees, business partners and, most importantly, the organizations who benefit. One might not like Brand X for a variety of reasons… the product tastes like road kill, the packaging isn’t sufficiently sustainable or the CEO is a political supporter of a loathsome candidate. The greater good won’t always align harmoniously with one’s personal values and sensibilities. That doesn’t make the effort any less worthy or authentic.” And in any event, ”evaluating and categorizing the authenticity, or lack thereof, of a brand’s altruistic motivation is, in many ways, a massive and futile exercise of spitting into the wind.” I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, but I do think that Allen’s overall argument is flawed—and perhaps more important, irrelevant. It may, as Allen says, be difficult for consumers to evaluate the true motivation for a company’s actions. But consumers can—and should—evaluate the context in which those actions are taken. “Criticizing Brand X publicly for its perceived lack of ethical purity or adherence to a certain political ideology is legitimate discourse, just not in the context of giving back,” Allen says. Those last two words raise a major red flag for me. You can only give back what you have first taken. And the value of what is given back can only be evaluating in the context of what was initially taken. A company that destroys a mountain-top through fracking, and then plants a single tree, has not made a positive contribution to the environment. Nor has a candy company that markets sugary snacks to schoolchildren and used some of the profits to subsidize a school sports program contributed to public health. The “charitable” activities of such companies should be regarded with intense skepticism, at least until they can persuade stakeholders that they have done everything in the company’s power to reduce the negative day-to-day impact of their operations to an absolute minimum. That’s one way in which context matters, and in which consumers can reasonably infer the sincerity of a company’s actions. Another involves the kind of commitment being made. There’s a world of difference—not only in motivation, but in real value—between a one-off donation to a deserving charity and a deep corporate commitment to driving real social change. A company that simply hands over a check for a few thousand (or even a few million) dollars to a breast cancer charity is not going to do as much to change the world as a company like Avon, which has made a sustained, multiyear commitment that has become a part of the corporate culture, that has engaged employees and customers in fund-raising efforts or their own, that includes public education as well as corporate largesse. Again, it is reasonable to infer that writing a check requires less genuine commitment than a sustained, broad-based corporate commitment, and to judge motivation accordingly. But in the end, I’m not sure any of this discussion of what’s reasonable makes much sense, because as Allen himself acknowledges, “consumers are more informed, discerning and demanding than ever…. [They] seek meaning and connection with the brands they buy as a way of making choices and expressing their personal values. Plus, they control the brand dialogue and will expose hypocrisy, dishonesty, hyperbole, faux-authenticity and greenwashing with righteous, vitriolic glee.” And they will continue to do so, regardless of whether Allen and his clients think they should. When we form human relationships, motivations matter. And if companies are looking at their cause-related activities as a means of forming deeper, more durable relationships with customers and other stakeholders, they need to understand that those stakeholders—all of whom are, inconveniently, human—will care about their motivations, perhaps more than they care about the dollar amounts involved. And if people care, companies—and those who advise them—should too.