Peter Knight, Director at Context Group, says NO! You can read his article “Letter from America: Let’s Call a Sale a Sale” in the October Ethical Corporation magazine. In it, Knight brings Toms Shoes and others to task for conflating marketing and selling to consumers with straight philanthropic activities.
Tara Greco, Senior Vice President at APCO Worldwide, couldn’t disagree more. She contributed a rebuttal to Knight’s article on the APCO Worldwide blog SharedPurpose entitled “Marketing Your Company’s Commitment to Shared Value.” She notes:
“Companies like Tom’s Shoes recognize that a quality product matters most, and then you have to differentiate yourself from your competitors. These days, all stakeholders—consumers, employees, regulators, investors—expect more from companies. They want to know what your company is doing beyond turning a profit and they want to know why you’re investing in those things.”
I would add the following in support of Greco’s argument: consumers are hungry for more, not less, information on corporate responsibility. According to Cone, Inc., 90% of Americans want companies to tell them how they support causes. I don’t think that means they want more press releases and CSR reports. Consumers, as Greco points out, are less trusting of traditional marketing tactics and now look more holistically at how a company talks about itself. A 360 degree view of a company’s cause efforts has to include a mix of corporate communications and marketing, but more importantly now, the voice of the consumer. Through social media and viral channels, consumers keep the pulse of what they deem to be authentic and meaningful cause programs. If they smell a rat, they are the first to tell you so on your company’s Facebook page, their blog and any other place they have a voice online.
Just think about the backlash that resulted from the KFC and Komen “Buckets for the Cure” cause partnership.
It’s not a question of whether consumers are confused when cause is incorporated into marketing. Rather, it’s a question of whether they believe that cause is authentically and sincerely represented in marketing claims. As with all elements of CSR, honesty and transparency are the best policies.