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How has social media changed cause marketing?

September 30, 2014

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Photo via Kim Quintano, Flickr.com

What do Scotch tape, chewing gum, golf balls and Kentucky Fried Chicken have in common?  Well, at least around October, they are among the myriad products whose packaging blooms pink.

For nearly 30 years, October has been designated by activists as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM); here’s a primer on how it all got started by the American Cancer Society and a pharmaceutical company, though of course for most of its history it’s been more associated with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which started the pink ribbon tradition in emulation of the AIDS-awareness red ribbons.

In the ensuing decades it’s become almost de rigeur for companies, sports organizations, celebrities and others to embrace NBCAM and go pink in one way or another; recent reports say entities ranging from  the Miami Heat to ABC News to a fire department in Cohoes, New York are commemorating the month one way or the other. Here’s a CBS News report under the headline “Too much?” that shows the pinking of landmarks like Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, the White House and even Niagara Falls.

But no one tops consumer products makers in their zeal to “support” the NBCAM, and October is always a good time to explore angles to the phenomenon of “cause marketing,” as it is known when corporations hitch their sales goals to an altruistic movement.

Pink Ribbon Produce is a campaign by the fruit and vegetable industry, according to The Produce Report, an industry journal.   Taking advantage of medical advice that lots of fresh food helps ward off illness, and perhaps hoping to emulate the recent viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the group is promoting via social media the Fresh Plate Challenge encouraging consumption of more veggies and fruits.

That’s in keeping with what seems to be an emerging theme this year, the notion of using social media more to raise awareness and engage consumers.  The cosmetics company Estee Lauder says it will focus more on storytelling via digital and social media and also will support breast cancer awareness year-round rather than in one big October burst.

The Mississippi Business Journal notes in a column by an area public-relations consultant that “The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has thrown water on all the competition when it comes to cause marketing success in the social media era. Nothing has whipped up such a viral tsunami as this innovative, inspiring and impactful initiative. All branding gurus can learn much from this sensation that is taking the world by storm.” The writer goes on to enumerate a number of considerations in planning fundraising campaigns these days; you might consult experts in your area for similar advice for charities and businesses.

I wonder if we will continue to see more cause marketing through spontaneous and interactive campaigns, following the $100 million success of the ALS Ice Bucket phenomenon, and if so, what does that mean for consumer goods companies and their vendors (packaging and design firms, advertising agencies, even distributors who restock the pink-themed goods for October) who have come to count on pink-ribbon business as part of their sales cycle.  It’s a question worth asking of those companies in your market.

I also wonder if today’s “time-pressed families” will increasingly opt for quick methods of participation, like the ice bucket, in lieu of fun runs and other outings that require a longer time commitment.  You might ask local charities and fundraising entities how they are adapting to viral challenges and social-media driven fundraising campaigns, and to some extent crowdfunding.  With year-end giving campaigns coming up I’ll address changing patterns in charitable giving soon, but it can’t hurt to start asking about trends.


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