Marketing Mythbusters: Charitable Campaigns



This time of the year, we are reminded constantly of those who are in need. We also have more places to give than there is room in the budget. This week in Marketing Mythbusters, we talk about how attaching a charitable angle to a campaign is not always a great way to transfer positive feelings to your brand.

In the mid 2000s, everything was different. Everyone seemed obsessed with bling and status, and outside signs of wealth. Then, in 2008, the reality of that carelessness sunk in: thousands lost their jobs, and the party was over.


This laid the groundwork for a bold new angle for brands to play with: adding charitable elements to campaigns, particularly social ones, to elicit a “feel good” sensation which consumers would come to associate with that brand generally.


It worked extremely well for a lot of brands. Chief among them was the Pepsi Refresh Project. Pepsi decided to not participate in a traditional ad buy for the Superbowl, and instead, put the money into a charitable fund by which not-for-profits, community associations, schools, and even individuals with an idea and a desire to serve were able to pitch their ideas to, have the internet vote up or down their ideas, and the most successful ideas would win grants up to $25,000 each.


It was one of the most successful digital campaigns run by Pepsi. It received more news mentions than actual news in some parts of the United States. Pepsi, ever the rebel brand, had created a revolution.


The best ideas in marketing are stolen and used by less deft practitioners, and the Pepsi Refresh Project was no exception. Soon, every company from grocery stores to banks to auto body shops were changing their positioning and campaigns to reflect this “brand generosity” idea.


Soon, everyone was nominating. Nominating, and voting, and sharing, and bugging all of their Facebook friends to do the same.


Then, people started filtering, blocking, and turning off these applications and notifications in Facebook.


In a final stroke, a lot of brands saw HUGE declines in participation, and even backlash from these charitable endeavours. Being “guilt-tripped on an industrial scale” has its limits, and some brands were advocating charities participants didn’t necessarily agree with.


Brands began to ask the question, “Where do we go from here?”


The answer is an age old one: It comes down to a campaign/brand fit, and you need to be very detailed in your planning.


First: not every campaign can be retrofit to every brand. It is important to understand that there is a difference between translating a campaign (informing the campaign with your own brand’s values, language, and goals) and borrowing a campaign (and trying to make pieces fit together like two jigsaw puzzles commingled in the same box.)


Next: You need to be VERY CLEAR about what you expect out of the campaign. If you have differing opinions about this on your team, hash it out, or throw out the idea entirely. If you are not deliberate about this from the beginning, people will attach their own narrative to this campaign and it will be a very costly lesson to you.


Once you’ve settled on your goals (we want to give away 10 grants of $5000.00 each to needy schools to fill their libraries– yes, it is important to be THIS SPECIFIC) you need to look at the terms and conditions. If you have a lawyer on retainer, congratulations, this step will be easier for you. If you do not, this is one of those “every stakeholder in a room, rolling up their sleeves” moments.


You need to get a complete list together of:


What this campaign is actually saying about your brand: Starbucks, a heavy user of local water supplies gives back with donating money from their bottled water sales to build wells in areas with very little potable water. This is a magic match up between brand story and charity story.


The mechanics of the campaign: (how does a person nominate a school, vote for a school, etc? You should aim to be as frictionless as possible to the consumer.)


The limits of the campaign: (schools from outside our Province are ineligible, trade schools are ineligible, etc.)


The myriad ways your system could be gamed: (one of these schools might have a computer whiz who wrote a python script to auto-vote their school.)

Your gaming triage plan: If said computer whiz strikes, how do you nicely and politely deal with it?


If you are missing any of these elements, your work on the campaign (art, tag lines, etc.) cannot begin. You need to make sure everyone is clear on how the campaign works, and comes together. Next, you should try pitching what you’ve just completed to a disinterested 3rd party, and see if they ask you any follow-up questions. If they do, you’re not done your work.


Part of charity fatigue is that the campaign itself must be frictionless, and must not spam a consumer’s social networks. (Spamming makes YOUR BRAND look bad, negating all the potential positives of your campaign.)


Think about what a person would have to knit into their routine every day just so their school could get the $5,000 grant. If it’s more than your third party is comfortable with, you’re dead before you’ve begun.


Think about a successful campaign you encounter nearly every week: grocery stores often ask you to “round up” or “add a buck” to your bill for charity. The seamlessness of this operation, and the extremely low stakes and participation by the consumer make these drives incredibly profitable for these stores.


Charitable campaigns are awesome when executed correctly, and can buy you priceless goodwill and PR which would otherwise cost millions, but if you do not plan for every possible outcome, your brand could be hurt, or you could be lumped in with all of the other charity brand noise consumers are exposed to every day. Take the extra time to plan and get internal buy in before you ever bother to execute your campaign to ensure a successful charity story.


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