The Seven Most Common Mistakes Brands Make When it Comes to Charitable Giving

By John McNeel in Guest Blogger
February 02, 2017 05:00

Whether it's your on-going corporate philanthropy initiatives, your latest cause marketing effort or your brand's drive towards Purpose, don't forget: today we live in a bottom-up, local first, people empowered world.

With the advent of Purpose as the new "must have" in the brand marketer's arsenal, major shifts are under way in most Fortune 500 companies to try to accommodate how their approach to charitable giving should evolve. Once silo'ed in a kind of "church and state" approach, corporate philanthropy and marketing are beginning to learn how to work together.

This evolution has given rise to some new rules that govern how purpose-driven brands need to better integrate their efforts across the various engagement channels in a hyper-connected, massively transparent and highly democratized world. As Purpose has become one of the new table stakes, expectations of how brands should behave have changed, even as new pitfalls have emerged.

Not surprisingly, most of these shifts mirror the trends that have been underway more broadly in the world of brand marketing, where consumers empowered by social media and their mobile devices have taken charge of brand content, expecting fully to be able to participate in the brand narrative, and accepting nothing less than one-on-one engagement as the norm.

Now, in the world of Purpose, as with brand marketing, participation has become the new frontier.
Old school thinking however still prevails in many of our leading corporations and brands: old habits die hard. Even brands that have made the leap towards Purpose have still struggled to fully embrace the needed change around direct engagement and participation. Here are just seven of the most common mistakes these brands make:

1) Broadcasting versus engaging. Purpose cannot simply be a messaging platform; it must be an action platform. But today even that's not enough: beyond putting your actions where your message is, brands must also find ways to drive direct and meaningful engagement with consumers around Purpose. Don't think simply about what your brand can do, but what you want your consumers to do. Invite them to participate. As in/PACT demonstrated one year ago at the Super Bowl, when you ask supporters to not only applaud a brand's efforts but to jump in and "Play Your Part", the energy, buzz, conviction, impact and results go off the charts.

2) Choosing versus inviting to choose. Much of today's corporate philanthropy or even purpose-driven brand initiatives still involve top-down decisions, where the customer is treated as the audience of a decision made at the board room level. And yet, today, it's possible for brands to consistently adhere to a true and relevant purpose area, while still giving consumers latitude to help choose the causes that should benefit: the causes that are nearest and dearest to their hearts. Democratization of corporate giving will drive superior engagement and allow the way companies give back to better reflect the voice -- and the hearts and minds -- of their customers.

3) Asking to give versus giving. How many times are we accosted by the brands to which we have been loyal, asking us to reach into our wallets yet again and give to a charity designated by that brand? Even if the brand promises to match that contribution, it's still saying to the customer, "thanks for giving us your cash and your loyalty, now will you give a little more to help this charity we are supporting?" A much better solution is the social good incentive: rewarding your customers for their loyalty by giving them the opportunity to direct a donation funded by the brand. Then, even if you ask the consumer to match the brand's contribution, you've essentially put your commitment first, rather than asking the customer to commit before the brand does. Called "reverse matching" this reward before you give method is proven to be more effective at creating a satisfying customer giving experience than the tried and true approach of customer gives first.

4) Inciting guilt versus inciting happiness. There's a classic South Park episode on "charity shaming" that shows a harried customer at check out who, after declining to give an extra dollar to feed hungry children, is asked to confirm that choice by pushing a button on a hungry boy's stomach and to yank the sandwich out of a hungry girl's mouth to collect his change. Although extreme, this inciting generosity through guilt is sadly all too common in many brands' cause marketing efforts. We've all seen it: the tear-jerking commercials, the heart-rending pictures of suffering, the psychological pressure to give because not giving exposes you to the world to be an ungenerous person. In his book Happy Money, Professor Michael Norton from the Harvard Business School turns that old convention on its head: with data and metrics to make the case, he demonstrates the power of social good incentives to drive happiness... which in turn can drive loyalty, advocacy and sales. Build your Purpose around positivity! You'll see the impact on the bottom line.

5) One shot giving versus sustained giving. I've written before about the difference between the "Mother's Day model and the Motherhood model of giving." Too many companies and brands still see their cause engagement as being seasonal or opportunistic as opposed to long-term and strategic. If a brand has deeply committed to a Purpose area -- which in turn is manifested in its support for a particular non-profit, cause or NGO -- the brand should build sustained engagement where its consumers are able to help support that cause over time, connecting for example each act of buying to a reciprocal act of giving.

6) Global giving versus local giving. When it comes to marketing, the "one size fits all" approach seems to have died long ago, in large part simply because it is no longer effective in a world where consumers expect to be treated like individuals, not numbers in a crowd. But when it comes to corporate philanthropy, CSR or cause marketing, the common approach is still to "go global," to hang the brand's hat on one single global charity partner and to pass up the opportunity for local activation or engagement -- after all, it makes it simpler, more efficient, easier to manage, and consolidates resources. While these arguments make sense on a certain level, the ability for a brand to drive consistency on a common global platform while also inviting consumers to make their voices and votes heard on a hyper-local level helps bring Purpose into the realm of what's proven to work for brands to deliver optimal engagement. In other words, have your brand stand for one thing; but allow your customers to live that Purpose in a way that's most relevant to them and moreover, bringing it closer to home.

7) Black box giving versus transparent giving. Today, the decline of faith and trust in public institutions and, to a large degree, the corporate world as well, means that the importance of transparency, integrity and authenticity around Purpose engagement has reached new levels. Even brands considered best practice examples of connecting Purpose and Purchase (think Warby Parker or Toms) still haven't adopted enough transparency around where and to whom their donations go; and in the e-commerce world, something like Amazon Smile is the ultimate example of "black box giving." You know something's happening in the background, but you can't actually see for yourself. Make sure that you build into your program the consumer touch points that allow them to see, appreciate and measure both the destination and the impact of their giving.

Turning these lessons into tenets -- our Seven Tenets of People Empowered Giving -- can help contribute to ensuring that your future programs connecting brand purpose to charitable giving will deliver optimal results.